NWT vaccine communication must improve, MLAs say

Boxes of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine
Boxes of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: GNWT

As the NWT’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign rolls out, regular MLAs urged health officials to improve communication about the vaccine itself and what communities can expect.

The territorial government released its vaccine strategy on Tuesday, confirming a set of priority groups and a phased approach alongside a tentative vaccination schedule for the 33 communities.

Long-term care residents and staff in seven communities have begun receiving their first doses of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine.

Communication is listed as one of the strategy’s four key components, particularly addressing vaccine hesitancy and providing “timely, accurate, and relevant information to NWT residents on a regular basis.”



However, in a Wednesday evening hearing of the legislature’s Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight, MLAs described a lack of information and confusion for constituents.

Deh Cho MLA Ronald Bonnetrouge gave an example, saying a chief in his constituency was first told his community would receive the vaccine by January 11, yet finds the community slated for January 18 in the new rollout plan.

Bonnetrouge said smaller communities like Enterprise, Kakisa and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation had received little notice to prepare residents for the fast-approaching January 18 vaccination start date.

Ronald Bonnetrouge addresses the legislature in October 2019
Ron Bonnetrouge, the Deh Cho MLA, addresses the legislature in October 2019.

“I’m really hoping you step up on your communications plan here and make do for the betterment of the residents and get the communications out there – even on radio,” he said.



Health minister Julie Green, responding to Bonnetrouge, said many vaccination dates listed are still subject to change.

“Without a specific date there is not any point in putting up posters or announcements on the radio and so on,” she said. “It is the intention of the staff to finalize these dates and provide that communication as soon as possible.”

Dr AnneMarie Pegg, the territorial medical director, said: “What I’m hearing is that we need to make sure we’re doing a good job and using multiple media approaches, not just a website in order to make sure people are informed.”

Kevin O’Reilly, the MLA for Frame Lake, called for concrete details about vaccination to be more readily accessible.

Kevin O’Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, in the Legislative Assembly on October 22, 2020.

“The vaccine schedule is not even found or linked in any way on the general Covid GNWT website. That needs to be fixed,” O’Reilly said.

“It’s not even easy to find on the NTHSSA website,” he added, using the acronym for the territory’s health authority. “It’s buried in the Covid Update Centre. People have to be able find this information a lot more easily.”

Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland suggested a link to vaccine information could appear on all GNWT department websites.

O’Reilly asked how people in Yellowknife can book a vaccine appointment and queried how the territory would ensure those receiving vaccines first are part of the outlined priority groups.



“This is the kind of level of information people want to know now,” he said.

Pegg said an online sign-up system is “very likely” in larger centres. Smaller communities may use another method.

Priority groups in larger communities will run on an honour system, Pegg said. No doctor’s note or verification will be required, for instance, to determine if a person has a pre-existing health condition.

Vaccine team concerns

Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler expressed concern about the health authority’s proposal for vaccination teams to fly into communities.

According to the territory’s rollout plan, the GNWT will send teams of nurses to help communities administer the vaccine, a move Semmler described as “colonial.”

Warning that those teams might inspire more fear of the vaccine in smaller communities, she said local health professionals should lead community campaigns. (The territory’s plan states travelling teams will “help the local healthcare staff, who are considered the experts in their communities.”)

Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, in the Legislative Assembly on October 29, 2020.

“When we talk about cultural competency and cultural safety and cultural awareness, the nurses … in our communities are probably the most culturally competent that we have, without teams coming in,” Semmler said.

 “We have a great team of healthcare professionals and pharmacists in our territory … that could have rolled this out. We could have had the vaccine already going out into the communities, and the nurses could have been doing the education.”



Minister Green said she was sorry Semmler took “the planning … as some of judgment on the competence of the staff.”

“That is not the case,” she continued.

“I heard Dr Kandola say very clearly that the travelling teams will be working with local healthcare staff, recognizing that they have knowledge of their patients and circumstances, and what I heard is that this is a combined approach. It is not a drop-in, drop-out approach.”

Semmler later asked if healthcare professionals in the communities would be able to administer the second dose – since the vaccine requires two doses, four weeks apart – without the help of the vaccine teams.

Both Green and Pegg said the teams will most likely go back to communities to help with the second round, to ensure local staff can continue providing regular services.

Among other questions on Wednesday, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson asked whether residents can expect a loosening in border restrictions in time for the summer tourism season. Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby asked if Covid-19 vaccines will be mandatory for public servants.

Health minister Julie Green speaks at a press conference announcing details of the presumptive positive cases on Friday, October 16. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Health minister Julie Green speaks at a news conference in October 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Health officials maintained that receiving the Covid-19 vaccine will be voluntary for everyone but offered no firm answer to Johnson’s question, only stating that gathering restrictions would most likely be loosened inside the territory if the vaccine is shown to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.