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Transport trucks approach the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont., on March 21, 2020. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says the joint-vaccination plan with North Dakota for truckers is the first of its kind in North America.Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press

Thousands of Manitoba truckers crossing the border into the United States will be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in North Dakota as part of an agreement between the provincial and state governments.

Premier Brian Pallister said the arrangement, which he touted as the first of its kind in North America, will ensure that a critical group of workers gets protected against the virus while the province copes with a persistent vaccine shortage in Canada.

“The reality of COVID in Canada today is such that the variants of concern are here, the third wave is here, but the vaccines are not here yet,” he said.

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“We have months ahead of us before all Canadians are fully vaccinated – and that’s in stark contrast to our American neighbours. Our number-one limiting factor in protecting Manitobans from this deadly virus is the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.”

The vaccinations will begin on Wednesday at a clinic set up at a rest area along the interstate highway near Drayton, N.D. The vaccines will be free for the truckers and the province – the U.S. government is covering the cost of vaccines, while the state will use funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for required health care staff, such as nurses, to administer the vaccinations.

The trucking industry has been pushing for priority access to vaccines, along with other essential workers. Some provinces, such as Ontario and New Brunswick, have included truck drivers in the early stages of their vaccine rollouts but others, including Manitoba, have not.

Mr. Pallister said truckers are vital to the province’s economy, moving important goods in and out of the intertwined economies of Manitoba and North Dakota. When asked why truckers weren’t already included in Manitoba’s own vaccine plans, he said the province was doing its best to manage scarce supply and struck the deal with North Dakota to alleviate some of that pressure.

The Premier said the province will examine whether similar deals are possible for other essential workers who routinely cross into the United States.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said he has also been in touch with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, whose province also shares part of its border with the state. He said the more vaccines that can be administered on both sides of the border, the sooner Canada-U.S. travel restrictions can be lifted.

He said more than half of the adults in North Dakota have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, putting the state in a position to assist Manitoba.

Terry Shaw, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, said the deal will mean truckers in the province will be able to get vaccinated sooner while also making scheduling easier, since they will be able to stop along their routes. He encouraged other provinces to follow Manitoba’s lead.

“Seeing these folks vaccinated not only protects those truck drivers, but it protects that North American supply chain,” he said.

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole congratulated Manitoba on the agreement with North Dakota but said it was more evidence that the Liberal government has mismanaged the vaccine file.

“The fact that a provincial government has had to independently negotiate to send Canadian essential workers into the United States to get vaccinated there underscores the complete failure of the Trudeau government when it comes to securing an adequate vaccine supply for Canadians,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the deal. In a brief statement in response to The Globe and Mail’s request for comment, Corinne Havard, spokesperson for Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, did not specifically address Manitoba’s plan.

Over all, the supply of vaccines that the federal government has purchased is significantly increasing, but inconsistent delivery schedules and some supply cuts have led to slow rollouts and cancelled appointments in several provinces.

On Friday, the federal government announced the slowdown of shipments from Moderna. That will particularly hamper provinces’ vaccine rollout over the next two weeks, but the changes were more than offset for May, June and July by the purchase of eight million more shots from Pfizer. Shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India were expected in April and May but have also been postponed, with no new date yet announced for the delivery of the 1.5 million shots.

After the April disruptions, vaccine shipments are expected to increase dramatically.

Pfizer is the country’s most reliable supplier of vaccines and the weekly deliveries from the company’s European plant will double in volume starting on May 3. The company has been sending Canada just over one million vaccines in April. In May, that will increase to just over two million doses a week and rise again to 2.4 million doses a week in June.

A new delivery schedule for the Moderna shot has not yet been released. Last week, the company said it would short Canada as many as two million doses between the end of April and June.