Rural Alberta is seeing lower immunization rates due to reduced access, concern

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Dr Jia Hu believes work can be done to increase rural fares and highlighted northeast Calgary as a success story

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Confidence, access and reduced level of concern about COVID-19 are contributing to lower vaccination rates in rural Alberta, according to public health experts.

The province’s 71.3% first-dose rate for people over 12 years of age is bolstered by large population centers, according to data provided by Alberta Health. Calgary has one of the highest rates with about 76.5 percent of eligible people having been at least partially immune by the end of last week, while Edmonton hovers at 73.5 percent.

Northwest Calgary has the highest rate of any geographic region with 82.4 percent of eligible residents having at least their first injection.

In comparison, 37.1% of people over 12 in Forty Mile County and 44.3% in Cardston-Kainai have at least their initial vaccine. The lowest absorption in the province is High Level, which includes much of northwestern Alberta, at 20 percent.

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While there are a few exceptions, with the Rocky Mountain counties along the BC border having rates in the 60-70% range, the data generally shows that the farther away an area is by a large population center, the lower the vaccination rate.

Dr Jia Hu, a professor at the Cummings School of Public Health at the University of Calgary and a member of the 19-to-Zero Expert Coalition working to build confidence in vaccines, said varying rates have for multiple reasons. He said the top three reasons people choose to be vaccinated include access to vaccine appointments, people’s level of concern for COVID-19 and who people trust in the community.

“If you, you know, make the vaccine easy enough to get and there are more places to get it, you’re more inclined to get it,” Hu said. “Certainly there is less access in rural areas than in Calgary for sure, and probably a little more reluctance there to give them demographics. But I think it’s something we should really pay attention to.

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Hu said his team had a number of initiatives underway in the coming weeks to help increase the number of rural people. He noted that he was involved in a project in Alabama that saw health workers visit the community, work with leaders, and obtain data on why people were reluctant to get the vaccine.

He now believes that similar work can be done in Alberta.

“We will apply the same approach, I think, to some rural areas, but keep in mind that the reasons for the reluctance are quite different and, you know, probably much more pronounced access issues,” Hu said. .

Hu believes rural fares can be increased and noted northeast Calgary as a success story. The northern part of the city initially saw low turnout, but after measures such as mobile clinics, targeted messaging and working with local community leaders, more people showed up for the vaccine.

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As of Thursday, 68.6% of people in the region had received at least their first dose.

“There has been a lot of organized work to involve these people and I think it’s important that we probably do a bit of the same for people who live in rural areas,” Hu said.

A weekend pop-up vaccination clinic opened at the Northeast Village Square Recreation Center in Calgary on Saturday, June 5, 2021.
A weekend pop-up vaccination clinic opened at the Northeast Village Square Recreation Center in Calgary on Saturday, June 5, 2021. Photo by Darren Makowichuk /Postmedia

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw told a press conference last week that different people will have different reasons for not getting the vaccine, and her team have worked with various community leaders to promote vaccines.

“It works, it’s just that it takes a little longer than the initial first race of everyone who is very excited,” said Hinshaw. “We’re working on this and seeing some progress but, again, the numbers take a little longer to come up because each individual or group will have a slightly different need.”

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Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the province is using temporary, mobile and drive-thru clinics as well as advertising campaigns and “much more” to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

“This includes not only helping to remove barriers preventing people from getting vaccinated, but also providing new incentives for those who know vaccines are safe but have not yet had time to get vaccinated.” McMillan said in an email.

He urged everyone to draw as early as possible and noted that the provincial lottery with three $ 1 million prizes was launched to help push people to book dates.

Cars are heading to a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination center that opened at the previous drive-thru test location on 32nd Avenue NE on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Cars are heading to a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination center that opened at the previous drive-thru test site on 32nd Avenue NE on Monday, June 7, 2021. Photo by Gavin Young / Postmedia

Hu said he believes if healthcare teams keep pushing the efforts McMillan has talked about, they will see results. He said he wasn’t sure if the lottery would help, but was happy to see the province try something new to encourage people to book a date.

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Hu said he would like to see 85 percent of Albertans get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Alberta has started to fall behind the national average for the first dose. Nationally, 73% of eligible people and 64% of the total population of Canada received a first dose, according to data released by Health Canada.

Saskatchewan is the only province or territory where a smaller portion of its population receives at least one dose than Alberta.

However, Alberta is ahead of many jurisdictions in the percentage of people fully immune, at 17.03 percent. This number is only behind the three territories and Saskatchewan.

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