COVID-19 vaccines arrive in hard-hit Arviat
“After what we’ve been through, it’s a really great feeling,” says MLA John Main
As the sun set on Wednesday afternoon, a crowd of trucks showed up at the Arviat airport to greet the single engine turbo-prop aircraft that had just landed.
The plane carried what many would consider precious cargo: 1,100 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Arviat, population 2,700, was the epicentre of Nunavut’s COVID-19 outbreak in November and December, with 222 residents infected by the virus. One man died, after he was transported to Winnipeg for treatment.
“It couldn’t have come soon enough,” said Arviat North — Whale Cove MLA John Main, who was among those at the airport to welcome the vaccine’s arrival.
“After what we’ve been through in the community, it’s a really great feeling.”
A few hours later, a group of residents sat at the community’s Mark Kalluak hall, distanced and masked, waiting their turn to be immunized.
To encourage residents to schedule their vaccinations, the hamlet invited the group to be the first to be immunized Jan. 13, offering them ulus as gifts.
Hattie Alagalak and her husband were among them. “It feels good,” she said.
The vaccine clinic for the rest of the population runs Jan. 14-18, first for elders and essential workers, and then through scheduled and walk-in appointments. Health-care workers will also visit the local elders centre to immunize residents.
The hamlet of Arviat is also offering an incentive; everyone who is vaccinated is entered into a draw. On Jan. 19, hamlet officials will pull five names, each of whom will win $2,000.
“We know firsthand what it is like to have a community outbreak in this community,” said Arviat Mayor Joe Savikataaq Jr., who received the vaccine on Wednesday.
“And we know the vaccine is the best way to fight off any second wave.”
As much as some residents are jumping at the chance to be vaccinated, there are others who are avoiding it, out of a fear that it’s unsafe, Savikataaq Jr. said. Health Canada, which approved the vaccine for use in adults, has not flagged any major safety concerns with Moderna’s vaccine.
“There is a lot of misinformation circulating around on social media,” he said.
Municipal and health officials are doing their best to counter that.
In an emotional plea broadcast on local radio — and later at a Jan. 14 Government of Nunavut press conference — Arviat resident Diane Sammurtok recorded a message encouraging Nunavummiut to get vaccinated.
Her husband, Luki Sammurtok, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 19.
“Please, please get the COVID-19 shot,” Sammurtok said in her tearful message. “Don’t go through what I had to go through. Watching your loved ones pass away is not a joke.”
Main didn’t need convincing; he’s scheduled for his shot on Friday.
“To know what that feels like, to have someone who you love get sick — it’s really scary,” said the MLA, who had a household member become infected with the virus last year.
“As people see their fellow community members being vaccinated, I think we’ll get more people on board,” he said. “I think we’ll see people getting more savvy, in terms of what sources of news you can rely on and which ones you can’t.”
In Rankin Inlet, where the local vaccine clinic is scheduled to begin Monday, the hamlet doesn’t plan to offer incentives for community members to get immunized.
“That’s not something we feel like we need to do,” said Darren Flynn, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer. “From what we can see here around town, there seems to be a pretty strong uptake.
“Initially, I think there were some reservations about it, but people seem to be getting used to the idea.”
In Arviat, the vaccination clinic also comes as the community no longer has active cases of the virus. COVID-19 restrictions were finally lifted earlier this week, allowing many offices and businesses to re-open and families to re-unite.
If the community remains COVID-19-free until Jan. 29, the outbreak will be officially declared over.
“Everyone is definitely happy about that,” said the mayor, Savikataaq Jr. “It was 63 days since we had our first case, so that’s 63 days of sacrificing — not seeing our relatives and loved ones.
“We’re slowly getting back to normal.”
To schedule a vaccination appointment in Arviat, residents can call 857-3100. Elders can also request a ride to and from the clinic by calling 857-4165.
A previous version of this story contained incorrect information. MLA John Main was scheduled to be vaccinated on Friday.