Nunavik should receive its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines by mid-January, but exactly how it will be distributed and who will get it remains to be worked out.
That’s according to Dr. Marie Rochette, director of public health at the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services.
The Quebec government previously identified Nunavimmiut as among the first few groups to have access to the vaccine, after those who live and work in long-term care homes and health-care workers.
The region would receive the Moderna vaccine, pending approval from Health Canada. That approval is expected by the end of the month.
Moderna’s vaccine is a new type called an mRNA vaccine. Instead of exposing the body to a weakened or inactivated virus in order to trigger an immune response, an mRNA vaccine gives the instructions to make a protein that triggers the immune response. That immune response triggers the production of antibodies, which in turn ward off infection.
Rochette said the health agency is consulting with its board members as well as mayors of the region’s 14 communities to determine what a vaccine campaign would look like, who would have first access and what capacity local health centres have to administer them.
“Most people … told us that they’d rather that we not rush to offer the vaccines in the coming weeks,” Rochette said.
“They’re very engaged about a vaccination campaign, but at the same time, they want to make sure it’s done properly,” she said. “And to look at what’s going on in other countries and other regions before we introduce it to the region. So we’re not rushing it.”
The Quebec government hopes to see 75 per cent of its population vaccinated in order to adequately protect everybody from the virus.
The COVID-19 vaccine has received a very different reaction in the region compared to the last major vaccination campaign against the H1N1 virus in 2009, when about 80 per cent of Nunavimmiut showed up to clinics to be vaccinated.
In social media forums in the region, many Inuit have said they don’t want to be treated like “guinea pigs” in the rollout of a new vaccine, suggesting it might not be safe.
Victoria Okpik, who is originally from Quaqtaq but lives in Montreal, says she’s ready and willing to be vaccinated, but understands the skepticism she sees in Nunavik.
“People are scared and lot of them are reading a lot of misinformation about the vaccine,” Okpik said.
It’s that misinformation that Rochette said health officials will have to target, to ensure Nunavimmiut can make an informed decision. The health board is already working on a communications campaign for social media and radio.
One of its key messages emphasizes choice.
“It is up to Nunavimmiut to make the decision,” the health board said in a Dec. 16 post on Facebook. “Everyone is free to choose to be vaccinated or not.”
Though she’s not considered in a priority group, Rochette plans to be vaccinated as soon as she can.
For now, Rochette urged Nunavimmiut to be vigilant over the holidays, when people tend to travel and gather more often. She’s encouraged that mask-wearing, isolation periods and screening tools have so far protected Nunavik from major outbreaks.
“But what we’ve seen in Nunavut is telling us that even if we put good measures in place, they’re not 100 per cent perfect. We still need to be careful, so we don’t see what’s happening in Arviat,” she said.
“And that’s why the vaccine is so important.”