Thompson-based COVID-19 vaccine plan rolled out for Snow Lake, other northern communities

Flin Flon seeking clarity, doses brought to town instead: Mayor

A handful of northern communities will be first up in a new provincial pilot project to give COVID-19 vaccinations to people at a clinic in Thompson.

Residents in Grand Rapids, Herb Lake Landing, Misipawastik Cree Nation, Snow Lake and Wabowden will be among the first to use the Thompson “Vaxport” program and will soon have a chance to get Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. The Vaxport program will include transporting people (likely by van or plane) who are eligible to receive the vaccine to the Thompson Airport, where they will receive their shots before being transported back home.

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The communities were first announced by the Manitoba government March 1.

“Communities were selected based on their readiness and ability to travel for the vaccine. Additional information about Manitoba’s immunization strategy for the north will be released in the coming days,” reads a provincial government statement on the program.

According to Manitoba's vaccination guidelines, all members of the public over age 89 are currently eligible to book appointments for vaccine doses. The minimum age, as of March 3, is lower for First Nation people. First Nations people ages 69 and older are currently eligible for doses.

While some people living in Flin Flon, The Pas, Thompson and on several northern Manitoba First Nations have received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, others in smaller communities have not had an opportunity for their doses yet. In Flin Flon, vaccinations have taken place for residents of the Flin Flon Personal Care Home and Northern Lights Manor, along with several frontline health workers.

Flin Flon is not part of the first round of communities to take part in the Vaxport plan, but discussions are ongoing between public health, provincial officials and the City of Flin Flon about how the community will factor in. In a discussion with The Reminder about the northern vaccination plan, Flin Flon Mayor Cal Huntley said that there are still questions about the Vaxport program the City is seeking to have answered.

“We were approached by Community and Regional Planning to have our citizens, 70-plus [years old], go to the Thompson Vaxport and receive their injections. These would be the Pfizer injections,” said Huntley.

“There’s so many unknowns right now that we haven’t thrown it out to our community.”

Under the plan, according to Huntley, eligible people would be put on a plane and flown from Flin Flon Airport to Thompson, where they would be vaccinated and then, after a waiting period, flown home again, with the province covering costs for the trip.

“On the face of it, it’s ‘we’ll give you a plane, fill it up with people, fly it to Thompson, get your needle,’ - it’s a bit more involved than that. Until we have more answers for people in the community, I’ve been hesitant to throw it out there,” said Huntley.

“We’re actively working on it and once we get some of those I’s dotted and T’s crossed, we’ll be giving direction to people in the community that have interest.”

Huntley said that the target group for the newest round of injections - people aged 70 or older - may require travel accommodations that have not been confirmed to be provided.

“What we’re trying to work through is that it involved citizen travel on an airplane and they have to commit to two trips because you need two shots. Because a lot of people in the 70-plus age group may have mobility issues, we have yet to determine how that would be dealt with and we have yet to determine whether some of them may need escorts to go as well,” he said.

“There’s some very active people in that age group, but for some of the people that might be interested, it may become a bit of a challenge. We can’t quantify exactly as of yet what supports might be there to allow that to happen.”

Huntley said his top preference for COVID-19 vaccine administration would be, instead of flying large numbers of seniors to Thompson for their shots, to transport the vaccines and any needed personnel to Flin Flon, which already has a hospital, testing centre and medical facilities. Instead of taking people on a plane to get their shots, Huntley wants the shots brought to them.

“My preference would be to bring the vaccine to Flin Flon and that’s going to happen. At some point in time, there may be people that feel anxious enough that they would be interested in taking advantage of the flight. As soon as we get those unknowns at least minimized and partially figured out, we’ll be communicating how they can register,” he said.

“I think everybody who goes through this conversation thinks that’s the common sense answer for this. I think the only unknown is the availability of the two vaccines that would work for that. They [the province] have a commitment to more of the Pfizer vaccines and they want to make sure that for some people, they have an option to get it sooner rather than later.”

In the meantime, Huntley advised the public to continue to follow public health guidelines and requirements to keep the Flin Flon district at zero active COVID-19 cases.

“I think what makes sense to me is that we try and continue to do everything we’re supposed to do, follow the guidelines that have been treating our area very well, the vaccine will make its way to us, rather than us to them. I appreciate the provincial government offering the ability to do this, but we have to make sure we know how it’s going to work before we put something out that sets up some expectations.”

While people have called the Flin Flon Primary Health Care Centre attempting to make appointments for the Vaxport program or to receive doses in Flin Flon, appointments aren’t currently being accepted in the community. Information for how Flin Flonners can book appointments, either for the Vaxport program or for any future COVID-19 vaccination clinics, will be announced at a later date.

As of March 1, while 4,251 people in the NHR (about 5.7 per cent of the region’s population) have been given their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, only 675 people in the NHR (less than one per cent) have received a second dose.

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