Dr. Jennifer Russell, Chief Medical Officer of Health for the Canadian province of New Brunswick, speaks during a press conference held on March 12. Credit: Courtesy of Jean Bertin

MADAWASKA, Maine — Thelma Thibodeau, 83, who lives in Edmundston, New Brunswick, is finally getting her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on March 30 — and she can’t wait.

“I don’t go out much because I’m scared,” Thibodeau said. “I just go do my groceries once a month and that’s it.”

Thibodeau became eligible for the vaccine when the government of New Brunswick announced on March 12 that residents aged 75 and older could sign up to receive their first dose.

Meanwhile, Maine continues to accelerate its vaccine distribution, heading toward vaccinating all those older than 16 by mid-April.

With New Brunswick lagging significantly behind, so does the prospect of a return to normalcy for the socially and economically co-dependent border communities in both Maine and Canada — which have been separated since the border closed on March 21 of last year. With cases continuing to climb in both countries, vaccines may be the only way to ensure both places are safe for cross-border travel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that the closure will stand until vaccine and case counts permit — a date that could potentially come as late as autumn.

“All of this is going to be based on data,” said Dorothy Shephard, the health minister for New Brunswick regarding the border reopening. “The amount of vaccines out there, [the United States’] and ours, the amount of variants that might be in our midst. That’s when we’ll make decisions.”

Throughout the pandemic, Maine and New Brunswick have been some of the least affected areas in terms of overall infections in their respective countries. But while Maine has registered about 50,000 total positive cases of COVID-19, putting it among the bottom three U.S. states for infections, New Brunswick has registered just 1,600, making it one of the least infected areas in North America, alongside its fellow Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Only 5 percent of the New Brunswick population has received even one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of March 13, according to Health Canada, the Canadian federal health department. By contrast, nearly 30 percent of Maine residents have received their first dose, six times the percentage of those vaccinated in New Brunswick.

Canada as a whole has lagged drastically behind the U.S. when it comes to vaccine rollout. Canada finds itself working double time on what Trudeau has called the “big lift” — an effort to overcome previous delays and vaccinate all willing Canadians by September.

Efforts were in part slowed by Canada’s chosen vaccine suppliers, which were mostly European out of fear that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration might severely limit vaccine exports from the United States. Now, EU suppliers are tightening restrictions on who they’ll send the vaccine to while the United States, under President Joe Biden, is increasing exports to both its northern and southern neighbors.

Currently in New Brunswick, only those 75 and older are permitted to book an appointment to receive a shot, compared to ages 50 and older in Maine. New Brunswick is looking to move to ages 60 and older come the start of April, while Maine looks to include everyone age 16 and older by April 19.

Alain Michaud, manager at the Edmunston branch of Canadian pharmacy chain Familiprix, said that his pharmacy has only been able to do one day of vaccinations so far, just 60 doses. He’s hoping for more doses on March 30, but wasn’t sure if they’d arrive and how many might come.

“We only get a small quantity every week if we order some — maybe we order 200, we only receive 50 of that,” Michaud said. He said he’s heard the same story from other local pharmacists. Everybody’s waiting for the vaccine while calls for appointments keep rolling in.

Although Maine and New Brunswick are both using an age-based system to determine vaccine eligibility, the latter announced it would move to vaccinate essential workers traveling across the border, such as truckers delivering goods.

Maine, despite its comparatively fast-paced vaccine rollout, has been reluctant to give priority to non-health care essential workers that travel the border.

“We’ve been advocating since the beginning to try to get our drivers vaccinated because of the essential nature of what they deliver,” Tim Doyle, vice president of the Maine Motor Transport Association, said. “The governor has decided rather to go with an age-based priority, so we’re not a higher priority than other professions.”

At this pace though, Maine is on track to start vaccinating all eligible adults before New Brunswick accommodates anyone below the age of 50. That’s if it’s able to make the big lift and reach its ideal pace.

While the vaccine rollout lags in Canada, New Brunswick is working to keep a grip on its lockdown. Neighboring Nova Scotia, which is the province furthest behind in vaccine rollout, opened its borders on March 20 to inter-provincial travel.

All this comes as pressure mounts on Biden to make the first move to ease travel restrictions on the U.S.-Canada border. Politicians such as Congressman Brian Higgins, D-New York, have called for the border to be reopened by the Fourth of July holiday, while U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has called for immediate easing of border restrictions.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, the chief medical officer for Health in New Brunswick, said that any discussions of reopening the border would have to come from the Canadian federal government, not at the provincial level.

“The issue around the border with the U.S. is going to be discussed at the national level,” Russell said. “So we will follow those conversations, and will continue to follow the epidemiology.”

In northern Maine, friends and families have been separated where the border doesn’t usually limit mingling among neighboring communities. Restrictions have only ramped up in recent months. New Brunswick has banned any non-essential travel from the U.S., even from family members, in the wake of the new COVID-19 variants.

Thibodeau, a U.S. citizen, could cross the border freely during the earlier days of the pandemic, so long as she quarantined upon returning to New Brunswick. Now, she’s unable to cross back and forth at all.

“I miss going across, that’s the worst for me,” Thibodeau said. “To go across and see my family, I miss that terribly.”

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.