The Northern Health Authority announced approval Tuesday of a plan to immunize every adult in Prince Rupert by April 1 because of continued high rates of COVID-19.
The northern city, located just south of the Alaskan panhandle, had 1.6 per cent of its population of 12,000 test positive for COVID-19 in February.
“That doesn’t seem to be following the trends of what we’ve seen in recent weeks in other communities,” said the authority’s spokesperson Eryn Collins.
Health authorities say the immunization rollout has been accelerated for other remote communities where accessing vaccines is more difficult, but also for some areas where the current rate of transmission is dangerously high.
Collins said an outbreak at Prince Rupert’s Acropolis Manor long-term care facility contributed significantly to high case counts in recent weeks. Last month, 33 residents and 23 staff tested positive for the virus with 14 residents eventually dying from their illness.
In Prince Rupert, the community immunization program has been met with gratitude and relief.
“It’s a little bit of a shock to the system,” said Coun. Blair Mirau, noting Prince Rupert can now look forward to a “post-pandemic spring” where every adult in town will have at least one shot of the vaccine by next month.
“It’s not the world that we woke up to this morning.”
Mirau says until recently, his city had been mostly insulated from the impacts of the pandemic.
“This is a city that has been incredibly diligent in following the orders of Dr. Bonnie Henry,” he said. “If there was an air of complacency, it was because there had not been cases for a number of months.”
Prince Rupert bubble burst
Last March, as the pandemic began, the City of Prince Rupert ordered anyone entering the community to undergo a mandatory 14-day self-isolation in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. It was also one of the only cities to have its local state of emergency rescinded by the province.
Mirau says the deaths and cases resulting from the Acropolis Manor outbreak have made the dangers of the virus all too real and also highlighted the scarcity of health-care resources in Prince Rupert as staff got sick.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were incredibly short-staffed from a health-care perspective.”
Jennifer Rice, the local NDP MLA for the North Coast, tweeted that the community is particularly vulnerable due to some of the highest poverty rates in the province.
Mirau adds that Prince Rupert also has a high proportion of Indigenous people among its population.
“We know that not only are Indigenous people more at risk, but they are also disproportionately impacted by this pandemic,” he said.
Vaccinations for people in Prince Rupert will roll out in age-based cohorts similar to the rest of the province, with those 65 and older able to register for appointments as of Friday. By March 18, those between the ages of 18 and 39 will be able to book appointments.
The first shots of Moderna vaccine will be administered in Prince Rupert starting Monday.
No ‘one size fits all’ approach, says health authority
Collins says several other northern communities have been identified for whole community immunizations including Haida Gwaii, where the percentage of the population who tested positive in February was 1.65 — the highest in the province.
“It’s not a one size fits all approach because we know that does not fit in the north,” she said. “We really encourage people to find out the information specific to their community so they know exactly when the first opportunity is to call and book an appointment.”
Up to 30 remote and rural communities on Vancouver Island are also set to be vaccinated in a community-wide approach because it would be logistically challenging to keep returning to the communities for each new age cohort.
“Depending on the size of the community this may result in the entire adult population of the community having the opportunity to be vaccinated during a single visit to the community (in one day or on consecutive days), or over two visits,” reads the announcement from the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
The list of communities on Vancouver Island includes Tofino, Ucluelet, Port Hardy and Gold River.