Data shows lagging vaccination rates in Northern Sask.

NDP launching radio ads to encourage far north residents to get vaccine

A nurse draws a dose from a vaccine vial in Prince Albert. Photo courtesy SHA.

A Daily Herald analysis of data provided by the Saskatchewan Health Authority shows vaccination rates for the Far North West, Far North Central and Far North East lagging behind the rest of the province.

Using publicly-reported first and second dose information along with population totals for each zone, the Herald calculated the percentage of first and second doses in each of the 13 zones by a proportion of overall population. That differs from the provincial approach, which tracks vaccinations by eligible residents. Residents under the age of 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine and aren’t counted in vaccine rates reported by the province.

The data shows that while 58 per cent of Saskatchewan as a whole has at least one dose of vaccine in their arms, and 21 per cent are fully vaccinated, none of the far north health zones exceed 40 per cent for even a first shot. Less than 20 per cent of each of the far north zones have received a second dose of vaccine.

The Far North West trails in both counts, with only 36.37 per cent of its population having received even one dose of vaccine, and 15.42 per cent having received both doses. That’s despite earlier access to vaccines for all eligible residents. The age limit restrictions for the far north were lifted much sooner than for the rest of the province, as rural, remote and Indigenous populations were prioritized by the federal government’s vaccination plan.

The NDP is launching a series of radio ads aimed at encouraging residents in Saskatchewan’s far north to get vaccinated.

The official opposition announced the initiative Friday. It comes as English River First Nation (ERFN) has declared an outbreak in the Patuanak area, with nine confirmed positive cases, including a handful of variants of concern.

In a press release, the NDP said that while vaccine uptake is stalling across the province, northern MLAs Doyle Vermette and Buckley Belanger are particularly concerned about their regions.

“We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to get as many folks vaccinated as possible. That’s why we’re launching this campaign,” said Vermette in a press release. “For your own safety, for the safety of your family, for the safety of your community, if you haven’t already, please go get vaccinated.”

The radio announcements will begin Monday and run for the next several weeks in English, Cree and Dene.

Belanger credited northern leaders for doing their part to encourage vaccine uptake but called on the province to do more to dispel myths that might be giving some residents pause when it comes to deciding whether to receive a vaccination.

“It just takes one really bad story of somebody getting vaccinated and having adverse reactions, and rumours tend to spread like wildfire,” Belanger said.

“That’s what we’re grappling with in northern Saskatchewan.”

Belanger said what he and Vermette are trying to do is inform residents that the vaccines do work, and that the message from the vast majority of doctors, nurses and health educators is to get vaccinated.

“We want to assist the health professionals and those people that work to bring this pandemic under control. It was the health professionals, and in some instances, the leadership in concert with the health professionals, that made significant difference,” he said.

“What we are telling folks is that there are many, many more advantages to being vaccinated than there are to not be vaccinated.”

The NDP isn’t the first to launch advertisements in the region. The province did launch a series of radio ads and social media messages of its own, including ads in Cree and Dene, to encourage people to get vaccinated. It also chose vaccine champions from all parts of the province to promote the importance of getting vaccinated.

The risks of not getting vaccinated are escalating as variants of concern begin to drive the spread of COVID-19.

ERFN said only 30 per cent of its population is vaccinated.

The Northern Inter Tribal Health Authority reported 15 cases in the Far North West as of Friday morning. Of those, nine are variants of concern.

“Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) public health officials are advising northern residents that COVID-19 variants of concern (VOC) are increasing in northern Saskatchewan,” they wrote on Facebook.

“These VOCs are 30-70 percent more transmissible, meaning they spread more easily thus it’s more important than ever before to follow the Public Health Order. Getting tested, knowing your COVID-19 status, getting your COVID-19 vaccine shot and following the safety guidelines can help protect yourself, your family and your community.”

In a late Thursday Facebook update, ERFN said the variants “making the situation far more critical because the virus is spreading easier and faster,” the community said.

“It also hits suddenly and can hit younger people harder. We are trying to get this situation contained to prevent others from getting sick. We do NOT want to see anyone succumb to this virus.”

Belanger goes back to what the health professionals have said.

“We have heard the advice on many occasions. When they tell us we have to be vigilant against COVID-19, this is an example of what they mean. When we as northern leaders are asking questions, we turn around and seek advice from as many people as we can. The vast majority of the advice we received on this front is from health professionals, and every single one of them is telling us to get vaccinated as quickly as you can,” he said.

“I think everyone in the north wants normalcy. If we want to have normal lives that we enjoyed before, I think part of the responsibility we have to undertake is to make sure we get vaccinated.”