While the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is being administered to residents of the Northwest Territories over the next three months, many people across the territory, including in Indigenous communities, are saying they won’t take it or are not sure it’s a good idea to take it.
It’s a phenomenon known as vaccine hesitancy.
“It’s not just a Northwest Territories issue,” says Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.’s chief public health officer.
“The World Health Organization noted an increase in vaccine hesitancy particularly when people don’t see the disease but they’re focused on the adverse effects of the vaccine.”
The N.W.T. received a shipment of 7,200 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 30 and administered its first ones on Dec. 31 at two long-term care facilities, one in Yellowknife and the other in Behchokǫ̀.
Last week, the territorial government unveiled its plan to vaccinate up to 75 per cent of the eligible population in the N.W.T. by the end of March 2021.
The vaccine, says Kandola, is what will enable us to return to our normal pre-pandemic lives, when there were no travel restrictions or limits on the number of people that gather.
Why people are vaccine hesitant
But one big impediment to achieving that goal, she says, is vaccine hesitancy.
There are many reasons why people are vaccine hesitant, says Kandola.
One of them is that people fear the vaccine was rushed.
Kandola and other health officials are adamant the vaccine has gone through robust approvals.
“They went through all the steps but they had funding, volunteers and had the whole process expedited. That was what allowed the vaccine to be approved but still meet the standard for a high-quality, safe vaccine,” says Kandola.
She added that more than 30,000 people participated in the clinical trials for the vaccine, that it’s been tested thoroughly and given to millions of people in the U.S.
There’s also misinformation online that the vaccine gives people the virus or that it alters your DNA.
It doesn’t, says Kandola.
Some people in the N.W.T. have said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach, partly because of the exaggerated claims the vaccine produces an allergic reaction.
Kandola says it’s been shown that reactions to the vaccine are exceptionally rare.
Others wonder why the North — where there are relatively few cases compared to provinces — has been designated a high priority to get the vaccines.
Kandola said the reason is because of the limited health resources the North has, and the housing insecurity experienced by many across the territories. She said that poses a risk of an outbreak in our small, remote communities, like the rapid spread we saw in Arviat late last year.
She said the early adoption of restrictions in N.W.T. played a significant role in helping keep the number of cases relatively low.
“That means people are less likely to see the urgency of getting vaccinated,” Kandola added.
The N.W.T.’s chief public health officer said that she’s aware of the history of medical racism in the North and how it has created distrust in many Indigenous communities.
Filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya is documenting abuses at the former Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, which treated tuberculosis patients from the North between 1945 and 1981.
He says histories such as this one sow distrust and that Indigenous people are suspicious about the medical system.
Yakeleya said it’s very important for the government to have dialogue with Indigenous people, especially elders. He said the government should spend significant resources on communications as it rolls out its COVID-19 plan — it’s one way to build public trust and make sure people believe in the science.
In Wrigley, N.W.T., band manager Kelly Pennycook said many in the community are “leery” of the vaccine.
Pennycook said many in the community want to see leaders like Premier Caroline Cochrane and Kami Kandola take the vaccine, publicly, first.
Kandola isn’t part of a priority population and doesn’t want to be seen as getting preferential treatment but, she said, when she can get it, she’ll happily publicize it to inspire public confidence.
Importance of communication
Pennycook echoed what Yakeleya said about the government having more dialogue with Indigenous communities.
He said he only knows one person so far in his community who said he’ll get the shot. Pennycook said elders have told him they feel the vaccine is “bad medicine” because it is “not natural.”
He says public health is going to have to do some lobbying and negotiating before people do show up to get their shot.
Many Indigenous leaders are getting information out in their communities about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Smith said they are holding weekly calls with Gwich’in leadership to provide regular updates.
“The two ways that work best for our communities is a little bit of social media, but a little bit of interpersonal communication between leaders and residents, and radio is a very important medium for us.”
They’ve gotten a community elder from Fort McPherson to join this call and put out a summary on CBC’s Nantaii radio program and on community radio in Aklavik, Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic.
He says this is one way they’re getting trustworthy information out, especially because of the threat of misinformation online.
“This vaccine will save lives, and I am of that opinion as well. People need to do their own research. We are of the opinion that Moderna vaccine has gone through a robust review and we are confident it is safe for the vaccination program that is currently underway,” Smith said.
For its part, the territorial government is putting out information.
While Kandola has done community information sessions, the government has put out information sheets in 10 of the 11 official languages. It’s also given information to interpreters and has explained videos posted online.
The government is also working on a vaccine hesitancy video that’s set to be released this week.