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Coronavirus

Why it’s hard to know what the NWT’s vaccination goal is


The NWT government said it is “not committed to a specific target” for vaccination as the number of residents to have received at least one shot approached the 75-percent mark.

As of Monday, the territory says 25,375 people have received their first of two doses of Moderna’s vaccine against Covid-19. Both doses have been administered to 19,271 people.

However, the territorial government told Cabin Radio those figures include vaccinations given to approximately 2,000 non-resident workers at sites like mines and other remote camps.

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Accounting for doses to those workers, and using the territorial government’s earlier estimate that there are 34,400 NWT adults eligible for the vaccine, it appears roughly 68 percent of the eligible NWT population now has at least one shot.

In the past, the NWT government has suggested it is aiming to provide 75 percent of eligible adults with at least one dose. However, that target has shifted multiple times and appeared to vanish completely when Cabin Radio sought clarity from the territory last week.

Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Damien Healy said on Thursday the territory was now “not committed to a specific target number for vaccine coverage.”

As recently as April 12, health minister Julie Green was speaking openly of a 75-percent target.

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In a Twitter back-and-forth with Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce president Tim Syer, Green said the time to begin easing public health restrictions was “when the Yellowknife vaccination rate is at 75 percent.”

She said the city was 64-percent vaccinated at the time. The GNWT has so far not published regional breakdowns of vaccination rates, though Healy told Cabin Radio the territory would begin doing so this week.

The discrepancy between Green’s online statement and the territory’s later denial that any target exists illustrates the GNWT’s dance around specifying precisely what it considers to be a successful vaccination program.

For the most part, the territorial government has repeated the statement that it received 51,600 doses of Moderna’s vaccine for the first quarter of the year, which it considers to be enough to vaccinate 75 percent of the eligible adult population. That’s not the same as saying 75 percent is the target. Initially, in the earliest stage of the vaccination rollout, the territory had used a figure of 70 percent.

In late February, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola clarified that the territory’s target was to give 75 percent of eligible adults their first vaccine dose by the end of March. The percentage of the population the NWT hopes to fully vaccinate, with both doses, was not clearly stated.

‘Not a measure of herd immunity’

Minister Green, in the legislature, has not always voiced precisely the same interpretation as Kandola.

On March 29, the minister told MLAs the development of variants of the virus behind Covid-19 – and uncertainty about the ability of vaccinated people to transmit the virus – “may change the immunity level we require, in communities, to say that we are fully vaccinated.”

“I think the 75-percent rate is now in question to some extent,” Green continued. “The whole business of ‘how much is enough’ is really up for debate.”

“Discussion of 75 percent of adults being vaccinated is not intended to be seen as a measure of herd immunity,” Darren Campbell, the NWT government’s Covid-19 communications manager, subsequently wrote to Cabin Radio.

“Given the number of variables and that children aren’t included in the 75-percent vaccination goal, it is important for us to begin talking in terms of herd protection versus true herd immunity,” Campbell continued.

“If a vaccine becomes available for residents under 18 and we have more evidence regarding the variables, we can reconsider the concept and calculation of herd immunity as everyone will be offered protection.”

Healy said the NWT requested additional vaccine doses for the second quarter of 2021, partly to vaccinate non-resident workers and partly as a response to the emergence of variants of the virus..

The federal government’s vaccine distribution spreadsheet shows the NWT had received 56,300 doses as of April 14 – 4,700 doses were given the territory between April 5-11 – and is projected to receive another 4,700 this week.

However, the CBC last week reported Canada will now receive only half of the Moderna doses initially scheduled for delivery this month. That could impact the NWT’s expected supply.

NWT still in phase two

When the Government of the Northwest Territories will ease restrictions is also a moving target, though it may come into focus later this month.

The NWT has been in phase two of its Emerging Wisely pandemic recovery plan since last June. The plan is intended to guide how the territory safely reopens businesses, services, and activities.

In phase three as it stands, the primary change is that gathering limits for outdoor events and activities are lifted entirely if suitable health measures are followed.

The plan originally stated that phase three would be possible after the second wave of Covid-19 had passed through North America, rapid testing was in place, community spread was limited, and contract tracing was in place. 

Though those criteria have long been met, North America has since endured multiple subsequent waves of Covid-19, a primary reason for the territory’s insistence that now is not the right time to ease restrictions.

The final step of Emerging Wisely – the lifting of all restrictions – was originally slated to take place when a successful vaccination program had reached seniors, immunocompromised people, and people with long-term illnesses. However, the GNWT has been cautioning since December that even once the adult population is vaccinated, restrictions won’t end.

In a webpage updated on April 12, the territorial government states a new version of Emerging Wisely will be released in late April or early May.

“The new plan will outline how we move toward easing and removing restrictions in the NWT,” that page states.

“This must be done due to changed circumstances that are directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has proceeded locally, nationally and internationally.”

The territory says the new plan will take into account the Covid-19 crisis that continues in southern Canada, the development of new variants that must be kept out of the NWT, and the wait to be certain that the vaccine protects against variants of concern.

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