Pharmacist Carmen Pallot helps immunize First Nations communities against COVID-19

Updated on March 17, 2021 (Originally posted on February 19, 2021)

Community pharmacist and Association member Carmen Pallot is Pharmacy Manager of Pharmasave Old Mill Plaza in Lillooet. Recently, she was part of a team of health professionals who provided COVID-19 vaccinations to First Nations communities in the region.

The BC Pharmacy Association spoke with Pallot about her experience.

Carmen Pallot

Carmen Pallot (right) was one of two community pharmacists who helped the First Nations Health Authority administer COVID-19 vaccines to communities near Lilliooet in early 2021.

1) How long have you been a pharmacist for the St'at'imc communities of Ts’kw’aylaxw, Xwisten and Tsal’alh? Can you describe these communities?

Carmen: First of all I would like to acknowledge that I practice and live on the unceded territory of the Northern St'at'imc people. I was born and raised in Lillooet and have practiced pharmacy at our family owned store since I graduated in 1999. The store was purchased by my parents in 1971 so this year will mark 50 years in this community. 

There are six communities in the Northern St'at'imc territory, with Tsal'alh being the most remote and isolated.  It can be accessed via a 1.5-hour treacherous dirt road, with hairpin turns and 14 per cent grade, by boat down the 20-kilometre lake or by a rail shuttle that operates every other week. We were fortunate to take the boat as we were transporting frozen vaccine to the site. 

Carmen Pallot

Due to the remote locations of the communities, vaccine administrators and the vaccines themselves had to travel by boat.

2) How have these communities been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, given their relative isolation from urban centres?

Carmen: Lillooet and the surrounding area did not have many COVID cases until December 2020. In fact, from January to November, we only had four cases total. That all changed rapidly in December when we had outbreaks in three separate communities. People were angry and frightened that COVID had arrived despite everyone's precautions.

The communities took extra precautions to safeguard the elders who are the knowledge holders of language and culture. Contact tracing was challenging, as access to a phone and cell service is not reliable in our area. Despite the challenges, after several weeks and an amazing effort by the local health care team, we are back down to zero cases.

Carmen Pallot

Lillooet is surrounded by communities of the First Nations people of the Northern St'at'imc.

3) How did you become involved?

Carmen: I have been part of an emergency planning COVID-19 response group in the community since the pandemic started last year. We have weekly calls and it includes members of Interior Health, local physicians and nurses, First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), and local government officials.

I had offered to help when we started planning for vaccine arrival in early January. FNHA was grateful to send me to communities where I was often the only immunizer that was a familiar face. I have long standing relationships with many people I immunized and I think it helped them feel more comfortable and at ease about receiving the vaccine from someone they knew. 

4) How many hours in total did you spend on the COVID immunization program here? Were you a volunteer?

Carmen: I spent about 30 hours volunteering for the community to provide these vaccinations.

I know some people will criticize me for not being paid and that I am devaluing the role pharmacists provide by giving away services for free. For me, it was about helping our community. The same community that myself and my family  live, work and play in. I think everyone wants COVID to be over and this was my way of ensuring I am putting every effort into making this happen. 

Carmen Pallot

Many patients were relieved to have access to the COVID-19 vaccine to protect their communities.

5) Please describe your experience in providing the COVID vaccines, was it a familiar process? What was new?

Carmen: The process of providing COVIDv accine was very similar to providing other vaccinations, with the exception that it was like holding a vial of the most precious substance man has ever made.

There were a few differences of course — storage requirements mean that you keep the vial at room temperature when you are using it and documentation of time out of fridge/time punctured must be accurately recorded. 

Most patients had at least one or two questions about the vaccine so I spent lots of time answering these before providing their dose.     

Carmen Pallot

Tsal’alh (Shalalth) was one of three First Nations communities Carmen served during her trip to immunize the communities around Lillooet.

6) How did the community react to news of the vaccine becoming available? Was there an overall sense of relief?

Carmen: The communities were ecstatic to be receiving the vaccine. There were many patients with tears of relief in their eyes. First Nations communities have long endured from colonialism-driven health inequities which impacts their physical, spiritual, mental and emotional being.

While having the vaccine as a priority group won't change the inequalities in the system, it did feel like it was a small step forward in the right direction.

7) What advice or words of wisdom would you share with other pharmacists in B.C. who have not yet had the opportunity to administer COVID vaccines?

Carmen: I would echo the advice of Dr. Bonnie Henry — Be Kind, Be Calm. Be Safe.

I also wanted to mention that two colleagues of mine, Mike Bonertz and Chris Dreyer also helped FNHA with their vaccine rollout.

Mike works with me at Pharmasave and Chris operates Stein Valley Pharmacy in Lytton and helped with the rollout there.

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This article was published as part of Pharmacy Appreciation Month (PAM). PAM is celebrated every March as a national effort to increase the reputation of pharmacists among the public, decision makers and other health professions. Read about PAM and check out our other pharmacist profiles here.​​​​​​