Manitoba has enlisted the help of its southern neighbour to vaccinate some of the province's essential workers.
Beginning Wednesday, Manitoba long-haul truckers will be able to receive their COVID-19 shots in North Dakota as they return home from U.S. trips.
In the next six to eight weeks, as many as 4,000 truckers are expected to receive either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines through what Premier Brian Pallister called a "continental-first joint initiative" with the United States.
The first clinic will open at a rest stop on Interstate 29 near Drayton, N.D., about 50 kilometres south of Emerson.
In co-operation with the Manitoba Trucking Association, the province will identify eligible individuals and work with North Dakota to schedule appointments.
"Today's announcement is indicative of the friendly relationship between Manitoba and North Dakota that's always benefited our people on both sides of that border," Pallister said Tuesday in a joint news conference with North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
The premier said Manitoba is relying on U.S. assistance as it faces a third wave of the coronavirus with limited vaccine supplies.
"We have months ahead of us before all Canadians are fully vaccinated, and that's in stark contrast to our American neighbours," he said. "The No. 1 limiting factor in protecting Manitobans from this deadly virus is the availability of COVID-19 vaccines."
Crediting Pallister with the idea, Burgum said the U.S. government will pay for the vaccines provided to the truckers and compensate the state for the costs of administering them.
"The U.S. has got a lot of vaccine and Canada has got less so this is an opportunity for us to work together starting with essential workers," the governor said.
More than half of all North Dakotans age 18 and older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. All of the state's adults are eligible to be vaccinated.
Pallister said he has informed the federal government of the initiative, although it's unclear whether he received an OK to do so from Ottawa. The Canadian government is responsible for vaccine procurement.
Asked for comment, Corinne Havard, a spokeswoman for federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, said in an email:
"Since March 2020, we have been working with provinces and territories to support them in their pandemic response. This work continues."
The federal government says it's on track to receive 48 million to 50 million doses by the end of June.
Terry Shaw, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, called the initative "a great announcement."
COVID-19 has not hit the long-haul trucking industry in Manitoba particularly hard. The industry acted swiftly early on to institute health protocols that have protected drivers, Shaw said.
An informal survey of truckers by the Canadian Trucking Alliance found that only about 60 of 12,000 respondents across the country admitted to having been infected with COVID-19. The majority of those said they contracted the virus in the community, not on the job.
Yet, Shaw said the industry is grateful for the initiative, and he expects the majority of drivers will take the North Dakota government up on its offer.
He also pointed out that with up to 4,000 Manitoba essential workers being vaccinated in the U.S., that will free up capacity at Canadian vaccination sites.
"Just because the long-haul driving community has managed our COVID risk very successfully, the simple fact is we still need to get vaccinated as does everybody else," Shaw said.
North Dakota, with a population of roughly 765,000, had received 549,285 doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday and administered 504,929 of them. The state has recorded 1,510 COVID-19-related deaths.
Manitoba, with a population of more than 1.3 million, had received 486,810 doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday and administered 341,926 of them. As of Tuesday, it had recorded 960 deaths.
A memorandum of understanding between the two jurisdictions says North Dakota will provide proof of immunization to truckers and share the records with the Manitoba government.
The two sides will also examine ways of vaccinating other essential workers.
Burgum said he is also in discussions with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe about vaccinating energy workers who criss-cross the Saskatchewan and North Dakota border.
Pallister said he has expressed interest in having Canadian military reservists receive vaccinations, courtesy of the U.S.
"The governor and I know that if the shoe was on the other foot, I would be the first guy to offer help to him, and he knows that 110 per cent," Pallister told the news conference. "Right now, we're the people who need help. God forbid but in five years there could be another pandemic and it will be us offering help straight up to North Dakota."
— with files from Dylan Robertson
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.