No fourth dose leaves some NWT residents feeling helpless
Dawn MacInnes had her booster shot more than half a year ago. On Tuesday last week, she went to Yellowknife’s vaccine clinic to get shot number four.
She needn’t have bothered: she isn’t eligible. At 68 years old, the Métis Yellowknife resident does not qualify for a fourth shot of the vaccine against Covid-19 under the NWT’s current policy.
“I was turned away,” MacInnes told Cabin Radio of her attempt to receive another shot.
“I was told I’m not eligible yet, and they couldn’t tell me when I would be.”
In Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, publicly available information suggests MacInnes is now eligible for a fourth shot.
“I feel really abandoned. I feel invisible,” said MacInnes a day after being turned back at the clinic.
“I feel extremely vulnerable, because people are running around without masks and don’t have to quarantine any more.”
The Northwest Territories, which lifted all pandemic-related restrictions on April 1, has already demonstrated an ability to set its own vaccine rollout schedule.
When booster shots were first being rolled out, the NWT’s chief public health officer, Dr Kami Kandola, departed significantly from national guidance and offered third doses to large portions of the territory’s population well ahead of almost anywhere else in Canada.
Discussing that decision in October 2021, Dr Kandola described to Cabin Radio circumstances in which the threatening Delta variant of the virus behind Covid-19 was causing infection in fully vaccinated people. Things had to happen fast, she said.
“Sometimes I have to look at my own data, look at our own unique circumstances, and realize we are eight to 12 weeks ahead of where Canada will be,” Kandola said at the time.
“We gave the vaccines early, we gave them in a tight schedule. Our breakthrough cases are higher, our breakthrough severe outcomes are higher.
“The vaccine is still protective but we need to focus on who, if they get Covid, would end up with severe outcomes. Right now, it’s 60 and older in the four hubs and 50 and older in the smaller communities.”
Health efforts focused elsewhere
Half a year later, different variants (Omicron and its subvariants) are at play and the territory’s approach is not the same.
By email last week, Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Jeremy Gibson Bird said Kandola this time “continues to follow” national guidance, rather than electing to outpace it.
That national guidance has, since the start of April, recommended fourth shots (or “second booster doses”) for anyone aged 80 or over, occupants of long-term care or seniors’ living facilities and, optionally, people aged 70 to 79. Some immunocompromised people in the NWT are also eligible.
“The CPHO is focusing on those at the highest risk for severe outcomes and, based on the severity of NWT cases, will adjust eligibility requirements if evidence supports the need for it,” Bird wrote.
“Our NWT data is currently seeing high rates of severe outcomes, such as hospitalizations and deaths from Covid, in populations over 80 and as such, had issued guidance for this population (over 500 individuals), plus the additional 70-plus cohort (over 1,800 individuals).
“Lowering eligibility to 60-plus adds another 4,600 individuals while the rate of hospitalizations decreases significantly for this age cohort.”
Bird argued there were “many routine public health needs that suffered” as Covid-19 strained resources in the pandemic’s opening two years, and now was the time “to focus our health response and public health prevention efforts so that we do not see a resurgence of other communicable diseases or poor health outcomes.”
A “baseline of our population that has either contracted Covid or is remaining up to date with their Covid vaccination” allowed the NWT to make that decision, he wrote.
As a result, Bird continued, “there is no timeframe for when a fourth dose will be available for the general population.”
MacInnes, though, feels powerless.
She says the territory’s advice as public health restrictions lift has focused on understanding the risk posed by Covid-19 and mitigating it where possible, but a booster dose she perceives to be key to lowering her risk is unavailable.
On Sunday, health minister Julie Green devoted a tweet to the benefits of vaccines, urging people to “talk about vaccines,” promoting their safety and health benefits, and using the hashtag #VaccinesWork.
At the end of March, Green told the NWT legislature residents would, when restrictions lifted, have to “manage their own risk and make their own choices.”
“I’m more vulnerable than ever,” MacInnes said.
“I’m told to assess my risk and vaccination is my first line of defence, and I cannot get it.
“I’m in a Catch-22 and I am pissed. I’m really angry.”