It’s good news for Northern Manitoba First Nations and their COVID-19 vaccination efforts that the Canadian military has arrived in the region to help them administer immunizations and also, perhaps, an indication that the Vaxport model proposed by the provincial government, in which people from outlying communities would travel to Thompson to receive vaccinations at a site by the airport, wasn’t necessarily the best way to deliver immunizations.
Military personnel began arriving in Thompson last week and will have up to five aircraft supporting their efforts to help out 23 remote and isolated First Nations. They could be in the area until as late as the end of June, depending upon how long it takes to fully vaccinate everyone who wants to be in each of those communities.
Two days after the federal government announced the military assistance for First Nations vaccinations, the provincial government said that the Vaxport site at the airport would be relegated to a backup role for the super site at the Thompson Regional Community Centre. This came just as the pilot phase of transporting people in to receive vaccinations at Vaxport wrapped up. Not all people who came in from Northern Manitoba communities to get their shots were vaccinated at the airport site however. Some received their vaccines at the TRCC.
The fact that Vaxport is being shuttered nearly as soon as it was opened does not mean the entire concept is bogus. People will still be travelling to Thompson to receive vaccinations. It’s just that they’ll get them at the TRCC super site, which began operations Feb. 1, rather than out at the airport.
The airport plan was criticized by the public and even municipal politicians as an example of a top-down solution that didn’t take into account the fact that, for instance, there’s no bus service out to the site, which then led to the satellite site being established at the arena. Now the roles have been reversed and it is the TRCC that is the main site and the airport that is a satellite, on standby for emergency use only.
To be fair, things have changed since the plan was first announced. At the time, there was only a Pfizer vaccine, which has specialized storage requirements, making it difficult to transport to far-flung locations. Then Moderna came along, which is easier to transport, and now there’s AstraZeneca, which requires only regular refrigeration, though it was suspended for delivery to most Manitobans March 29 after reports from Europe that it caused a rare but potentially fatal complication among some recipients, particularly women under age 55. As circumstances evolve, plans that made sense at first sometimes cease to and it’s a credit to the vaccine task force that they recognized that and changed their minds.
The about-face could also be a result of the provincial government consulting with First Nations but maybe not really listening to them. If they were satisfied with the Vaxport idea, Indigenous Services Canada probably wouldn’t have requested support from the Canadian military. The Vaxport model had a lot of moving parts and was weather dependent and could have put people at risk if they were transported together with someone who unknowingly had COVID-19 on their way to receive vaccinations. The fact that there have been dry runs of the site is a benefit however. It means that it can be pressed into service if the super site for some reason can’t maintain operations or keep up with demand for vaccine. In a case like that, the existence of Vaxport would be welcomed by northerners among the 90 per cent of Manitobans who are still waiting to receive their first doses of any COVID-19 vaccine.