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A volunteer helps ‘light the way’ for a mobile vaccine convoy, which arrived in Haines Junction on Feb. 2. Photo: Michael Schmidt

Grassroots organizing inspires vaccine uptake in remote regions of the Yukon

Community leaders encourage residents to get vaccinated while they have access to the Moderna vaccination

By Michelle Meiklejohn , in City , on February 26, 2021 Tags: , , , ,

John Fingland almost never gets the flu, so he has never bothered getting the flu shot. That’s because he lives in an isolated community of 25 people called Champagne,  60 kilometres west of Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory.

Since he rarely gets sick, Fingland was unsure that he would get the Moderna vaccine because he saw news reports that seemed to say getting a COVID-19 vaccine was similar to getting the flu shot.

“Living in a remote community like this, maybe I’ve had the flu once in the past 20 years,” said Fingland, who is also a member of the Champagne First Nation.

With news that a remote vaccination clinic was coming to a nearby village, Fingland knew he had to make a decision. The big shift for him came in two ways.

For starters, he didn’t want to be associated with the “anti-vaxxers” who he describes as “absolutely crazy.”

He also realized if he wanted to travel from Champagne to Victoria, where his father is in a retirement home, he would need to get vaccinated.

Fingland’s hesitance and then acceptance embody the process that many people in the territory (and across Canada) are going through.

One of Yukon’s biggest obstacles to the vaccine rollout to remote communities is not the territory’s sparse geography or inclement weather — it is helping community members overcome their uncertainty within the limited time that they have access to the Moderna vaccine.

As a result, many rural areas have relied on community leaders to demonstrate that the vaccine is safe to ensure people are ready and willing to get a vaccine in the narrow window available to them. Yukon was given priority access to the Moderna vaccine because of its “remote communities, significant Indigenous populations and limited healthcare system capacities,” according to Yukon’s COVID-19 vaccine strategy.

To emphasize the importance of acting quickly to take advantage of the limited opportunities for vaccine clinics, the territory launched a promotional campaign called This is Our Shot. Local residents have also stepped up to spread this message and have been finding creative ways to make an event of the remote vaccine clinics.

As of Feb. 17, 2021, Yukon had vaccinated more people per capita than any other province or territory with more than 11,500 of the territory’s 42,000 residents vaccinated.

Ontario has currently vaccinated 490,000 out of 14,700,000 people.

Team Togo, one of two mobile vaccination teams, arrives just before nightfall in Haines Junction, Yukon. Photo: Michael Schmidt

The territory’s effort was so successful because each rural community in Yukon employed a unique strategy to persuade residents to overcome their hesitation by the time the mobile vaccine teams arrived.

In Haines Junction, a community of 800 located 155 kilometres west of the capital, Whitehorse, Angie Charlebois knew some people in her village were vaccine-hesitant.

So she decided to organize a community event to encourage people to get involved.

Charlebois put a call out on Facebook to see if community members would volunteer to make ice lanterns, offering to provide supplies and tealights.

Charlebois wanted to encourage her fellow community members to get vaccinated explaining, “There’s a really tiny window of being able to influence people to get it. It’s not like it’s going to sit in a fridge somewhere and you can get it whenever you want.”

In the current vaccination plan, communities like Haines Junction will only provide one- or two-day clinics to administer each Moderna dose.

Charlebois helped organize her community to make 140 ice lanterns to welcome team Togo, one of two mobile vaccination teams in Yukon, when they arrived in Haines Junction from the Alaska Highway.

“One person made 90 ice lanterns.” Charlebois said.

a side-by-side image of ice lanterns with tea lights glowing inside
Ice lanterns made by volunteers in Haines Junction /Dakwäkäda lined the route to town to welcome the mobile vaccination team to the community. Photo: Michael Schmidt
Yukon’s only fly-in community surpasses immunization goal of 75%

In Old Crow, a fly-in community that lies 112 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, leaders were concerned by the initial low rates of people who had signed up for vaccination appointments. They knew they had to get the appointments up after less than half of residents booked online.

Community radio is an essential communication tool in remote communities, so deputy chief Tracy Rispin of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation approached CBC North to make an announcement just days before team Balto, the second mobile vaccination team was set to fly in.

The First Nation also hired a well-known community liaison as the COVID-19 outreach co-ordinator to spread the word among residents.

A storm caused a six-hour flight delay for the vaccination team. Nonetheless, the community celebrated the team’s arrival, picking them up on snowmobiles from the airport and welcoming them with caribou stew.

Despite the delays, the clinic was able to vaccinate 142 people in Old Crow — 80 per cent of the community. The crew was sent off with fireworks.

Regardless of the difficulties the pandemic has brought, it has engendered compassion among people, Rispin said.

“The one thing about this COVID, you know, it has kind of opened the arms of kindness all over the place. You know, people helping each other and that’s what we were missing for a long time.”

The support is mutual

Fingland also noticed that rural communities have banded together to support the mobile vaccination teams in their effort to subdue COVID-19 in a way that city-dwellers have not.

He was given the choice to get vaccinated in the capital, Whitehorse or in Haines Junction.

Fingland chose the latter.

“Haines Junction, as you saw in the news, has a very positive community strength. Not only ‘let’s do this,’ but ‘let’s support the people who are going around doing the inoculation.'”