This rural county in Alberta has a first dose rate of only 45%. The people who live there tell us why


In the tiny Albertan hamlet of Skiff, Cade Hollingsworth and two of his colleagues are on farmer’s time, stretched out on the ground next to a grain elevator, watching the clouds pass by.

They have some cleaning up and a bit of paperwork to do today, but after that they wait for a truck to be loaded in the barnyard just across the coulée to the north.

It will take as long as it takes – time for the farmers.

Hollingsworth works for Forty Mile Rail, a short rail line that connects the village of Foremost to Sterling, Alberta. When the grain cars finally arrive, the trio will load them before they are shipped to the coast.

Cade Hollingsworth says he feels rural and urban centers are experiencing the pandemic differently. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Just over 25 kilometers down the road is Hollingworth’s hometown of Foremost, on one side of the Forty Mile Rail.

It is a small community, with a population of just over 500 inhabitants. Hollingsworth graduated with 15 students in his 12th grade class.

“Everyone is friends. Everyone knows everyone, which can be good or bad,” he says. “I think the saying, ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’, is actually very true in the village of Foremost.”

Hollingsworth says he knows he is one of the lucky ones in the world – he has kept his job throughout the pandemic.

Cade Hollingsworth works for a shortline railway that connects the village of Foremost to Sterling, Alberta. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

In rural communities in Forty Mile County, Hollingsworth says he hasn’t seen much change in life. When he enters the city, he notices the changes.

“Nothing has changed as drastically as I can imagine in one of the bigger centers, like Calgary or Edmonton,” he says.

The fact that everything seems a little bit as always could explain why the county has such low vaccination rates compared to the rest of the province, according to Hollingsworth.

As of Friday, the county had seen just 45% of residents over the age of 12 who had received their first jab, well below the provincial average of 82%.

“I imagine [people in urban centres] probably think of us as country people who don’t know what’s going on, ”he says.

“But from what we’re seeing, what’s the point, I guess? Our lives haven’t changed.”

A split in the community

One change difficult for residents of Forty Mile to ignore, however, has been Alberta’s implementation of its version of a vaccine passport system.

Businesses and sites are allowed to operate without capacity limits or other public health measures if they require proof of vaccination or a negative test result from those who enter.

But in front of the three workers waiting for the truck to arrive under the cloudy Alberta skies, the community of Foremost is divided on the issue.

Many express feelings of mistrust of government and health officials. Others say they think the mass media sensationalized the pandemic. Some say their neighbors have bought into conspiracy theories they read on social media.

The owner of Main Street Cafe in Foremost, Alta., Says she has no plans to participate in Alberta’s restriction exemption program. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

In a county that has just 38.4% of residents over the age of 12 who are doubly vaccinated, the reality is that companies implementing the program could lose more than half of their customers if more residents do not get the jab after the passport.

“To me that’s unfair,” says Joanne Schmidt, owner of Main Street Cafe. “I don’t think I should have the right to say, ‘You have to be vaccinated to enter my business.'”

Schmidt is not embracing Alberta’s restriction exemption program in his cafe at the moment, opting instead for take-out only.

Part of that, she says, is due to the fact that some of her staff have not been vaccinated.

Crystal Jahn, a waitress at the cafe, says she doesn’t trust the rate at which vaccines have been rolled out and is suspicious of the provincial and federal governments.

“I like to say that [Premier Jason] Kenney is a liberal disguised as a conservative, ”Jahn says. “He’s a hypocrite, you know, who says he’s going to do one thing and then veer completely left.

Schmidt says she doesn’t know how her decision might affect her business in the future. Work crews who came for dinner and beers will no longer be able to attend now that Main Street is reserved for take out.

“But I don’t think most of them have their vaccine either, so they couldn’t come anyway,” she says.

Lorne Buis, the mayor of Foremost, says that although the village has always been tight-knit, disputes over vaccinations and COVID-19 have become more frequent in recent times. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

A common refrain among residents is that living in Foremost is like being part of a big family. If there is a crisis or tragedy in the community, residents come together to lend a hand.

But since the pandemic hit, many say there has been a noticeable split in the population between “vaxxers and anti-vaxxers”.

“You know, you have groups that think this is a dark web conspiracy theory,” Foremost Mayor Lorne Buis said.

“Well, you are going to read what you are going to read on the Internet. If you don’t speak fluently enough to verify the facts you are reading below, it’s up to you.”

Part of the problem, Buis says, is the rumor mill that can sometimes bubble up in small towns.

“In my mind, that’s misinformation. They’re reading something, and it’s the honest truth to God. They haven’t checked it to make sure it’s true,” he said.

“One guy says something, I say it to two friends and they say it to two friends, and they say it to two friends… well, by the time he gets to the second group of friends, it’s not. very close to the original story, isn’t it? “

No islands when it comes to COVID, according to AHS

Forty Mile County says it has supported Alberta Health Services in setting up immunization clinics and in disseminating information on social media and online about the benefits of immunization.

But Stewart Payne, the county’s director of emergency services, says it’s unclear why the county ranks near the low on immunization provincially.

“There have been no surveys. There have been no studies. Everyone has their personal choice, and the opportunity is there,” he said.

The Forty Mile County office is located in the village of Foremost, Alberta. The county is considered to have an active case rate of 733.4 per 100,000 population as of Friday. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Southern Alberta Zone Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vivien Suttorp says that while the percentages for Forty Mile County are very low, it is also important to look at the total number of unvaccinated people in the south. from Alberta.

For example, 12,000 people are not immune in the local geographic area of ​​West Lethbridge – not a very large area, Suttorp notes.

“West Lethbridge is moving to the rest of Lethbridge, isn’t it? ” she says. “People are moving. It’s only across the bridge. So it’s concerning when you look at the total number of people.”

In doing so, you can see all of southern Alberta as a total population – to recognize that very few humans are an island in itself, she says.

Vivien Suttorp, Alberta Health Services chief medical officer for the southern zone, said Forty Mile County’s vaccination numbers are concerning, adding that the county is not a community in itself – it is part of the largest community in southern Alberta. (Sarah Lawrynuik / CBC)

In Forty Mile, Suttorp says there are no specific issues in the area that cry out to health officials as being of particular concern, adding that all areas of the province involve diverse cultural, business, religious and school communities. .

But when it comes to small communities in southern Alberta, the COVID-19 vaccination rates mirror the vaccination rate for childhood vaccines.

“These are the communities with low immunization rates where we have outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases – you’ve had measles, mumps, whooping cough. It’s in those communities, ”she said.

“The communities where we have more children vaccinated, in the schools where we have children who are fully vaccinated, we do not see the transmission of the disease in these communities.

“So the difference, or heterogeneity between the communities, is significant in southern Alberta.”

Push for Bobby

Even with all of this in mind, for some business owners trying to follow the rules and keep their heads above water, the frequent implementations and withdrawals of restrictions in the province are frustrating.

Just under a half hour drive north of Foremost is the town of Bow Island, Alberta. With nearly 2,000 residents, it is the largest community in the county.

At Bobby’s Bar and Restaurant, regulars began to pour in. Owner Charlene Rosse knows her guests by name, and gets run over by drink orders, opening cans of Bud Light and Kokanee.

It’s like the sitcom Cheers, Rosse says, even though in recent months she must have “kiboshed the COVID talk” in the bar when it is heating up.

Charlene Rosse, owner of Bobby’s Bar and Restaurant, says she fears rural businesses may not be able to survive the pandemic. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Rosse took over running the place in June after longtime bar owner Robert “Bobby” Perst died of lung cancer earlier this year.

“He had a heart of gold. Most people loved him. Everyone has enemies, don’t they? I have enemies. You have enemies,” said Rosse.

Rosse has worked with Perst for 25 years and she says he has become like a stepfather to her. The bar meant everything to Perst, says Rosse, so it’s important for her to keep him alive.

A photo of Robert “Bobby” Perst watches over the bar at Bobby’s Bar and Restaurant in Bow Island, Alta. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Just above Bobby’s bar, a few steps from a decoration that says “better let Bob win at the nursery”, is a photo of the eponymous owner. Right before his death, Perst recorded a video expressing his concerns that COVID was killing small businesses.

“Bob built this from scratch, this place. I don’t want to let it go,” Rosse said. “It kind of wants me to fight to keep it going even harder, for him.”

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge office to help tell your Southern Alberta stories with reporter Joel Dryden. Ideas for articles and tips can be sent to [email protected].

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