CAF lends a hand to help vaccinate First Nation communities in Manitoba

May 10, 2021 - Tim Bryant, Western Sentinel

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across Canada and around the world, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) is doing its part to bring it to an end.

Under the auspices of Operation VECTOR, and at the request of Public Safety Canada and Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), CAF medical specialists have been deploying to northern and remote communities in Manitoba to administer vaccines.

Caption

Sailor 3rd Class Anthony Allaire from 5 Field Ambulance, attached to the Land Task Force, gives the COVID-19 vaccine to on-reserve Indigenous communities in collaboration with the Indigenous Services Canada, local Indigenous authorities and Public Safety in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (Nelson House), Manitoba during Operation VECTOR on March 29.

Photo by Corporal Matthieu Racette, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

The Op VECTOR deployment is headquartered in Thompson, Man., and comprises approximately 120 personnel, explained Lieutenant-Colonel David Brassard, 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Commanding Officer, who is also the Commander of the Task Force (TF) in northern Manitoba, designated TF AURORA.

TF AURORA includes soldiers and a team of Royal Canadian Air Force personnel in the Air Task Force (ATF) responsible for transporting soldiers and medical personnel to and from the communities in which they administer vaccines.

While the majority of the personnel on the operation fill more support roles, LCol Brassard said it’s the medical teams who are most important.

“The medical teams are the centrepiece,” he said.

The medical platoon assigned to the TF consists of nurses and medical technicians who are trained to provide inoculation support. In a prime example of how good things can come in small packages, the two teams are only 23 people in size collectively.

“Those are small teams, but the throughput is significant,” LCol Brassard said.

General duty nursing officer Lieutenant Sarah Stang is the team lead for one of two vaccination teams. She explained ISC’s goal is to have at least 75 per cent of the population in the First Nations communities in northern Manitoba vaccinated by the end of the operation.

She and her team help to set up clinics using a model that maximizes the number of people who can be vaccinated, as well as keep an eye out for any unexpected reactions to the vaccine.

“We’re monitoring for any adverse events that happen and then we keep the flow going,” Lt Stang said. “We will vaccinate everyone who would like to have the vaccine.”

Each day in the clinic is different, to the point where some days there are vaccine doses left over, she added.

“If at the end of the day we don't have all of our vaccines given, we look at the option of going door-to-door to identify people who are willing to receive the vaccine but could not make it to the clinic. This is so that we avoid wasting vaccines,” she said, emphasizing that receiving the vaccine is completely voluntary.

Lt Stang added that her team, or CAF personnel who arrive in the communities before the vaccine teams, work with the local nursing station and community liaisons to inform residents of the benefits of the vaccine.

So far, Lt Stang said her team has been well received in the communities they have visited, although how well has depended on the communities’ experience with COVID-19.

“Some of the communities we've been to have had fairly significant outbreaks and lockdowns,” she said. “We found in those communities there is an excellent uptake because they have lived through these outbreaks and they have lived through these lockdowns.

“From what we’ve seen and from our experiences, they’re grateful to have us here and we’re grateful for the opportunity to be able to reach out to help them.”

One aspect of the vaccination process the CAF has not had to worry about is supplying the communities with the actual vaccines – ISC has its own vaccine delivery chain, LCol Brassard explained.

“When we arrive in a community, the vaccine [supply] is already in place,” he said.

Not having to worry about delivering the vaccines frees up resources for other critical tasks, including setting up vaccination clinics and “every kind of logistical support to enable the inoculation of northern communities.”

“Every community is different up north,” LCol Brassard said. “They all have different needs.”

Caption

Lieutenant Sarah Stang, a Nursing Officer serving with the Land Task Force (second from left), speaks with Beryl England and staff of Indigenous Services Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Omiishosh Memorial School in Pauingassi First Nation, Manitoba on April 7.

Photo by Corporal Matthieu Racette, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Caption

Chief Marcel Moody and Council of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba present members of the Land Task Force with parting gifts for providing support to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic during Operation VECTOR on April 1.

Photo by Sailor 3rd Class Megan Sterritt, 17 OSS Imaging

Determining what those needs are is the responsibility of ISC. ISC identifies which communities need assistance, what form that assistance will take, and at what tempo the entire operation will proceed. That means in some communities, CAF personnel are only needed to set up the clinics without doing any vaccinations. In others, however, CAF personnel are administering vaccine injections.

Caption

Members of the Land Task Force and Air Task Force, along with First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and Indigenous Services Canada staff, travel in a CH-147 Chinook and meet in Pauingassi First Nation in Manitoba during Operation VECTOR on April 7.

Photo by Sailor 3rd Class Megan Sterritt, 17 OSS Imaging

Caption

Members of the Land Task Force, the Air Task Force and Indigenous Services Canada staff in a CH-147 Chinook prepare to land at Little Grand Rapids, Manitoba during Operation VECTOR on April 10.

Photo by Corporal Matthieu Racette, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Caption

Master Corporal Samuel Desgagné, a Medical Technician serving with the Land Task Force, prepares a COVID-19 vaccination shot at Pauingassi First Nation, Manitoba during Operation VECTOR on April 7.

Photo by Corporal Matthieu Racette, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

For LCol Brassard, the priority is making sure his troops are meeting the needs of ISC and the communities.

“Ultimately what’s important for me as a commanding officer is that we actually make sure the community is happy with the level of service we provide, and that our partners at Indigenous Services Canada are also happy with what we’re providing,” he said.

In order for the TF to perform its duties, it needs to be able to get into the communities. Considering the operation kicked off in earnest at the end of March, the change in seasons from winter to spring and summer means the ice roads connecting the communities are melting, rendering the communities almost exclusively accessible by air.

“It’s a very Air Force-centric operation in terms of getting out to the communities,” LCol Brassard said.

Equipped with two CH-147 Chinook helicopters from 450 Squadron in Petawawa, Ont., and two CC-138 Twin Otter fixed-wing aircraft from 440 Squadron in Yellowknife, N.W.T., the ATF under the command of Major Kerri Egbert is what makes the operation function.

“Many of the communities are isolated and hard to access via road,” Maj Egbert said. “The ATF is providing a couple of different platforms that have the ability to reach into those places pretty easily.”

Maj Egbert added the ATF also has access to a CC-130 Hercules from 17 Wing Winnipeg if large-scale transportation is needed.

“Those aircraft were identified because they've got the capacity to carry a section, as well as land in a place that has a small grass or gravel strip, or even no airstrip at all,” she added.

While the ATF is not on the go all the time, it remains quite busy. Pilots will fly a team into a community and then return to Thompson to prepare for their next mission. That next mission may be flying a new team to a new community, returning to the original community to pick up the first team, or picking up a third team from a third community. It may also be an entirely different mission, as the case may be.

Regardless of the mission, because the aircrews are travelling between multiple communities, they have placed a big focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“When the aircraft go in and out the aircrew don't come in contact with community members,” she said.

Aircrews are subject to regular testing for COVID-19, and follow strict handwashing and masking protocols.

“Additionally, where it's identified that there may be a higher risk, or if someone becomes symptomatic, we have the ability to isolate the members so they don't bring it into Thompson, nor take it forward to the next First Nation community,” she said.

For LCol Brassard, an operation like Op VECTOR is the perfect summation of the role of the CAF.

“It’s Canadians helping Canadians,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

In addition, the operation takes on a collective and personal angle.

“It’s also a way for us to get back at COVID-19,” he said. “For a year, we’ve had to operate in less than ideal conditions, we’ve had to wear a mask, and we’ve had to not interact with each other in a meaningful manner.”

For that reason, LCol Brassard said the personnel under his command have been eager to take part in the operation.

“The morale is high,” he said. “Our people are super fired up. Everybody was fighting to get in on the action.”

Maj Egbert said being involved in Op VECTOR fills her with pride.

“I feel really honoured to be part of this and contribute to achieving the vaccinations for the First Nations communities,” she explained.

“Having the chance to participate in an operation that has a humanitarian nexus—that’s linked to pandemic recovery—to me, is a real honour. I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be right now.”

Meanwhile, Lt Stang took a retrospective view on the importance of an operation like Op VECTOR.

“I think this is a really excellent opportunity to be able to work with these populations in a very positive way and to be able to bridge the gap between any deficits they feel we've put forward in the past,” she said. “It's definitely a great opportunity to help Canadians here on Canadian soil.”

CAF personnel on Op VECTOR are scheduled to be in northern Manitoba until the end of June, however that timeline could change depending on how the operation progresses.

Caption

Members of the Land Task Force arrive at the staging hub for COVID-19 vaccination clinics to on-reserve Indigenous communities in collaboration with the Indigenous Services Canada, local Indigenous authorities and Public Safety in Thompson, Manitoba during OP VECTOR on March 28 March.

Photo by Sailor 3rd Class Megan Sterritt, 17 OSS Imaging

Caption

Members of the Land Task Force prepare the staging hub for COVID-19 vaccination clinics to on-reserve Indigenous communities in collaboration with the Indigenous Services Canada, local Indigenous authorities and Public Safety in Thompson, Manitoba during OP VECTOR on March 28.

Photo by Sailor 3rd Class Megan Sterritt, 17 OSS Imaging

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