Sask. health minister takes aim at federal government over vaccine rollout hiccups

Province says vaccines supplied by feds 'significantly less' than was promised.

A sign warns travellers to Stanley Mission in northern Saskatchewan that due to COVID-19 only residents and essential services are allowed into the community. An allocation of 1,450 Moderna vaccines are now on their way to the far northeast. Photo by Michael Bramadat-Willcock

Health Minister Paul Merriman is blaming the federal government for not sending enough doses to Saskatchewan as leaders question the province for delaying their rollout of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 in the northeast health region. 

“Vaccines are proceeding as quickly as possible in Saskatchewan given the limited number of vaccines that we have received to date,” Merriman said.

“We are limited by the amount of doses that we have received. We could get absolutely more vaccinations done more quickly if and when the federal government provides us with more doses.” 

Merriman said the province is expecting a total of 30,000 doses in January–a number he said doesn’t cut it.

“This is just simply not near enough and it is significantly less than they promised us just last month.”

He said Premier Scott Moe would be raising the issue with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a phone call on Thursday. 

This week the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority declared outbreaks at the Lac La Ronge Indian Band communities of Stanley Mission and the Kitsaki, La Ronge reserve. Outbreaks have also been declared in Pelican Narrows and Southend. 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority has declared outbreaks in Ile-a-la-Crosse, the La Loche Health Centre and in Pinehouse where there is an ongoing state of emergency.  

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson sent a letter to Minister Paul Merriman on Jan. 2 asking why the northeast health region was excluded from the initial rollout in northern Saskatchewan. 

Cook-Searson asked for clarification on how the decision was made to exclude the far northeast from the first allotment of the 4,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine that arrived in the province on Dec. 28. 

Only 48 of those doses had been administered in the northwest and north central regions as of Wednesday.

“I was very concerned to learn that the local Medical Health Officers (MHO’s) were not involved in the decision on the vaccine allocation in the North. Going forward, I would recommend that any decisions that affect the residents of northern Saskatchewan need to be made in consultation with the northern health care teams, including the MHO’s and the Northern leadership, including First Nations,” Cook-Searson said in her letter to Merriman.

“It is imperative that in the coming weeks and months as more vaccines are available that allocations of the vaccine are made in direct consultation with the communities that are most impacted and not by someone in the Provincial Ministry in the South.”

Cook-Searson was joined by La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak and Air Ronge Mayor Julie Baschuk in a second letter on Monday saying they were not adequately consulted. 

Pinehouse emergency response team member Jamie Iron confirmed no vaccines have arrived in the community as of Tuesday.

The leaders argue Saskatchewan’s strategy doesn’t make sense and there are enough vaccines to cover the entire north’s more vulnerable population such as the elderly.

“In my opinion, the allocation of the vaccine should have been based on these priority categories as announced by the province,” Cook-Searson said. 

“I would think that with the limited facilities that are in the North, that 4900 vaccines would sufficiently cover these priority categories for all three regions in the Far North.”

Merriman said on Dec. 8 he spoke with Cook-Searson, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron, and Métis Nation-Saskatchewan President Glen McCallum.

Merriman said that an allocation of 1,450 Moderna vaccines are now on their way to the far northeast. The federal government is sending 5,300 more vaccines to Saskatchewan that should arrive on Monday, he said.  

“Everybody that was on the call seemed pleased that we were prioritizing our Moderna for up in the north and that’s exactly where we shipped our Moderna,” Merriman said. 

“As identified today the far northeast is going to get their Moderna allocation… It is on its way up there.” 

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said the rationale for vaccine delivery was based on logistical concerns since both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines come with expiry dates. He said the first rollout was a trial run for the north. 

“The logistics are very complex,” Shahab said.  

“You have to remember we’re getting these products from here in Regina that have to go up to Fond-du-lac, that have to go up to Stony Rapids, that are going into the far northern reaches of our province that don’t have roads,” Merriman said. 

“We are making sure that planes are available to get that up there as fast as we can.” 

Creighton Mayor Bruce Fidler said in his capacity as chair of the New North organization in December that the province should prioritize vaccine access in more isolated communities where residents do not have access to hospitals.

“I would really like to see the elders and the vulnerable in the north, especially in the really remote communities be moved up on the priority list because of the lack of available medical services throughout the north. I hope that they would look at that and put some of the northern people higher on the list; the elders and people who already have medical issues,” Fidler said. 

“There are remote communities out there that have no medical services in the community whatsoever so if they get sick they don’t have anyone to turn to.”

Merriman said the northern population is lower and residents are “spread out” across the region. He said not as many northerners meet the criteria for priority access to the vaccine as in city centres to the south. 

He also said federal regulations initially didn’t allow all vaccines to be administered at once, but the province will now give out those doses as they arrive in Saskatchewan. 

The Daily Herald has reached out to federal health minister Patty Hajdu for a response.