Boats, planes, helicopters: Canada gears up to vaccinate remote indigenous communities
By Moira Warburton
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's indigenous communities have been prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, but distribution to difficult and remote terrain will be challenging as authorities use small planes and boats to ship the drug.
Canada on Wednesday approved drug maker Moderna's vaccine, which most indigenous communities are expected to use because it remains stable at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius for 30 days, unlike Pfizers, which must and is stored at -70 degrees Celsius stable only a few days after thawing.
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Even with more transportable vaccines, getting the doses and medical staff into the country's indigenous communities that live far from major cities will be a challenge, said Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia.
While many communities can be reached via forest roads or airplanes, some can only be reached by boat. Some airports are so remote that dog sleds and snowmobiles have to haul supplies to local hospitals.
"This is winter storm season and some of these communities are difficult to access," said McDonald. "We have had talks with transport companies ready to fly to communities, helicopters to communities."
This is made difficult by the fact that both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses to be fully effective.
"It's really going to be about figuring out how to zoom across complex geography in a limited amount of time, but also by having to do it twice," said Tobey Meyer, senior policy analyst at Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the 49 indigenous nations in the country Represents Northern Ontario. "How the hell are we going to do this?"
Each community currently has different capabilities to host vaccination clinics - some have robust health centers with the necessary storage infrastructure, others do not, Meyer said.
According to Dany Fortin, the retired Canadian general responsible for introducing the Canadian vaccine, authorities want to use the Red Cross, military and "non-traditional immunizers" such as dentists and physical therapists to deliver the vaccine.
Ottawa has stated that due to limited medical care in remote communities, the higher rate of pre-existing conditions, and poor access to clean drinking water or safe housing that make regular hand washing and social distancing effective, the indigenous population should be a top priority.
Ontario added an indigenous subcommittee to its vaccine use task force. Manitoba, which has bought 20 portable ultra-cold freezers for use in a small number of "super locations", said it received an additional 9,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine due to the high number of indigenous peoples in the province.
With strict travel restrictions, Native Canadians, who comprise about 5% of the population, initially avoided the worst effects of the pandemic. However, according to the government, cases began an upward trend in their communities in late September.
The fact that Native Americans are at the top of the vaccination schedule is a sign of how much progress Canada has made on the road to reconciliation, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to improve Canada's relationship with indigenous communities with mixed results since he came to power.
"Twenty years ago, governments would not have given indigenous peoples priority. As usual, we would have been the last on the list," said Phillip. "I'm happy to say that I am encouraged that reconciliation - which we know is not a destination but a journey - is beginning to show results."
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