It's official - first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine have been given to select people in Creighton, Denare Beach and Pelican Narrows.
The vaccines arrived in the communities with little fanfare late last week and were available at first for Saskatchewan residents over age 80 who were able to travel for the immunization. Provincial health officials confirmed earlier this week that vaccines had been shipped into the far north east health zone of Saskatchewan, but did not say where they had been made available.
Through discussions with people in the region who received the shot and others tasked with organizing vaccination efforts, The Reminder can confirm people in Creighton, Denare Beach and Pelican Narrows have received first doses of the Moderna vaccine. Other communities in the far north east 2 health zone may have received and began administering vaccines, but accounts have not yet been independently verified.
Vaccinations in the Creighton/Denare Beach area have taken place at the Creighton Provincial Building health office and have been by appointment only. Vaccinations are now available only to Saskatchewan residents over the age of 75, with the minimum age dropping from 80 Jan. 13.
The Reminder was able to reach two people who are among the first to receive the shot in the area, both residents of Denare Beach over the age of 80 years old.
"I was really pleased to get it because I'm an 81-year-old diabetic - kind of high risk," said Karen Enns, one of the first local recipients of the vaccine.
"I was really pleased to get it this soon. I wasn't expecting to get it this soon. I figured we wouldn't get the Pfizer vaccine up here because it's too ticklish to travel and we don't have the facilities, but they brought the Moderna one in here."
Enns was notified Jan. 9 that the vaccine would be available in Creighton and she was eligible to receive it.
"They called me out of the blue and said, 'If you'd like a shot, come down. This was a Saturday afternoon, not even in regular office hours. I was there with bells on," Enns said.
A second recipient shared a similar story - while they did not want to be named, they said they were caught off-guard by the phone call.
"We had no idea that it was here," said the second recipient.
In Pelican Narrows, select doses were made available for health staff and for people age 70 and over from Jan. 11-15. Some appointments were made available for people over age 50.
"Once the vaccine is gone, we don't know when there will be another opportunity," reads a Jan. 11 community notice for Pelican Narrows from Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN) Health Services, who are responsible for administering doses in PBCN communities including Pelican Narrows. Appointments made for Jan. 14 needed to be rebooked after freezing rain coated roads in the region, making travel potentially unsafe.
Throughout Saskatchewan, 10,400 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been given out in the province. Shots have been administered in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and an increasing number of small communities. The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) announced the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would be offered in a number of smaller communities around Prince Albert starting Jan. 14, including Blaine Lake, Big River, Shellbrook, Birch Hills, Candle Lake and Christopher Lake among others.
Enns said she went to the Creighton Provincial Building for her shot and that, for all intents and purposes, the experience was similar to getting a standard flu shot - aside from a temperature check at the door, there were basic questions and having to show a health card, then - after a short pause - the prized jab.
"I've been getting my flu shots there for years. You just go in there and everything's according to Hoyle - they sit you down at a distance from everybody else and they give you a surgical mask, gave me the papers to read, make sure I read them and I got the shot. They kept me for about 15 minutes afterward and that was it - quick and easy," she said.
"It was exactly like a flu shot. No problem."
The second, unnamed recipient said they hoped more doses were made available and criteria for the shot is opened up to more people.
"Just thank your lucky stars when they say you're eligible," they said.
"I just hope they get more supply so everybody can get them."
The efforts to bring the vaccination to the public required some community help. Mary Wright was tasked with providing some of that help - a now-retired health worker living in Denare Beach, Wright was contacted last week by public health workers to help build a list of people eligible to receive the shot.
"They contacted me to see if I knew people who were over 80 - I really don't know people's ages, but I did talk to some other people who had a much better idea," she said.
From there, Wright called some friends and neighbours, who got in touch with others. Eventually, a list of people who would be able to get the first shots was developed - while the final number of names was unknown, the initial list was estimated to be between 12 and 24 people long. Some people had already been contacted by public health workers.
"Between the names we got, I called health back with the names and it was up to them to see if they qualified," said Wright.
"I didn't know enough people - but I did at least know who to contact to find out the people they'd need to know."
More calls and contacts will be made in Creighton and Denare Beach for eligiblity as the minimum age requirement is lowered.
"I'll have to wait for the next calling, I'm afraid," Wright joked.
"I think around here, they might cover us pretty quick. I'm concerned about people who don't meet the age criteria, but who have some serious health issues. They weren't addressing those yet, but I think they're going to be addressed pretty soon."
Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccines have been brought to northern Manitoba, but have not yet been made available in the Flin Flon area. The first date for vaccinations in Flin Flon has been tentatively set for Jan. 21 for residents at the Northern Lights Manor, according to a letter sent to relatives and caregivers of manor residents obtained by The Reminder. That date has not been publicly confirmed by the Northern Health Region (NHR), who are tasked with administering and distributing vaccines throughout northern Manitoba.
"As announced by the province last week, Manitoba has launched a 28-day campaign to immunize all eligible residents in long term care homes in Manitoba; this campaign began today [Jan. 12] for 28 days," reads a statement sent to The Reminder Jan. 12 by an NHR spokesperson. Immunizations in The Pas at the St. Paul's Residence personal care home - designated as an active outbreak site by the provincial government - will begin Jan. 14.
"Residents at St. Paul’s Personal Care Home in The Pas will receive their vaccines Jan. 14. All other LTC (long-term care) facilities in the region will receive theirs in the next 28 days; specific dates will be released this week. The doses will be administered at the long term care facility," reads the NHR statement.
In Manitoba, eligibility for the vaccine has been limited mostly to health workers. Criteria for the shot were expanded Jan. 12 to include workers in hospital emergency and urgent care, with no restrictions for age. Another expansion allows people working in what the province calls "congregate group care settings", including Child and Family Services, homeless and family violence shelters and disability services.
Once vaccines are made publicly available in Flin Flon outside the long term care doses, they will be available to all eligible groups of people on an appointment basis.
"Anyone who meets the eligibility criteria will be able to access the vaccine," reads the NHR statement.
About 5,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine have been shipped to remote First Nations by the province and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC). Doses have been sent to Cross Lake, Norway House, Fisher River and Peguis, with doses either set to arrive or having already arrived in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Sagkeeng First Nation, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and Bunibonibee Cree Nation.
Roll-out throughout southern Manitoba locations has taken place faster than in the north - as of Jan. 12, about two per cent of all doses administered in Manitoba have been in the north.
Saskatchewan residents ages 75 and over can book appointments by calling Creighton Public Health at (306) 688-8620.