Nearly 68 per cent of eligible Albertans – or 57.7 per cent of all Albertans – were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Sunday, but experts say vaccination coverage needs to be higher as the Delta variant sweeps through the province.
There are a range of ideas to boost rates, ranging from vaccine passports to battling misinformation to leaning on family doctors’ relationships with patients.
Forty-eight per cent of the eligible residents in the High Prairie community have at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Alberta Health; it is one of the lowest rates in the province.
High Prairie Mayor Brian Panasiuk said he wants that number to be higher but acknowledges there are people who are holding back.
“There are people that don’t want to get the shots.
“They’re not sure if they should. They’re not sure if it’s safe,” he said.
Vaccines are being offered through pharmacies, doctors’ offices and AHS clinics, and Panasiuk said he is not sure what else the province could do to boost rate but notes a vaccine passport could push those wavering into action.
“People would resist the idea and don’t think it’s fair but from strictly in terms of trying to get the numbers up, making that a requirement could certainly boost the numbers,” he said.
University of Alberta sociologist Amy Kaler said messages of responsibility and making good choices are no longer working.
“There’s a ceiling to the effectiveness of just telling people over and over again: ‘We encourage you to get vaccinated,’” she said.
“If people really did take that to heart in large numbers and do exactly what they’re being encouraged to do, we wouldn’t be in a fourth wave.”
Kaler said there is no hope in persuading anti-vaxxers and that there is a range in people who are unvaccinated, such as those concerned about side effects and people facing difficulty in accessing the vaccine.
“And then you have people who just don’t have a sense of urgency around vaccination, who maybe just haven’t gotten around to it – that’s the group where I think vaccine mandates would work,” she said.
Kaler is of the belief vaccine passports or mandates could be the key to incentivizing those hesitant.
“Anyone who owns a smartphone has already handed over way more of their personal data than a little screenshot of a record from AHS,” she said.
“People have the right to consume alcohol, cannabis as much as you want. But you don’t have the right to then get behind the wheel of a car and drive around because you’re endangering other people, and it’s the same thing with vaccination.
“You got the right to remain unvaccinated but if you’re going to be on a university campus with 300 other students in a lecture theatre, you need a vaccination because if you’re unvaccinated in that situation, you’re putting other people in danger. It’s a pretty basic principle.”
Kelly Grindrod, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Waterloo, said while vaccination rates are slowing down everywhere, Alberta is still behind the rest of the country.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic with the Delta variant moving through society so quickly. We really do need that number up as fast as possible,” she said.
Grindrod said misinformation and disinformation is a real obstacle.
“Even if you show up with a mobile bus, but they don’t trust they vaccine or they don’t trust you, that’s the biggest challenge.”
“What you’re having to do there is really try within a community to build trust… have patients talk to their own family doctor, have the pharmacist making sure they’re offering it to everyone who is going through,” she said.
Dr. Cathy Scrimshaw, medical director for the Alberta College of Family Physicians and a physician in Pincher Creek, agrees that relationships are pivotal to reaching the diverse group of those vaccine hesitant.
“I have to say, as a family physician, it seems those individual relationships family doctors have with their patients, that helps calm some of the fears people may have about getting the immunization.”
Scrimshaw said a recent survey of members showed the biggest concern was low vaccination rates, particularly in rural communities that are already facing staffing or bed shortages.
“How do we directly intervene? What would be effective in addressing that vaccine hesitancy there?
“I’m afraid we don’t have any good solid ideas that will for sure work, but certainly that individual relationship that those family doctors in those areas have with their patients… can really help with that education.”
Grindrod is quick to stress that someone who has not yet received a vaccine should not be shamed.
“They’re not a bad person… Maybe they don’t trust the information they’ve gotten, maybe they don’t have someone they can talk to who they can trust that they can get good information from, maybe they have legitimate concerns about their health and need someone to explain to them why the vaccine is safe based on a health condition they’ve got,” she said.
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