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Nearly 71 per cent of eligible people in Alberta have received at least one dose of vaccine as of Sunday, compared to 73 per cent across the country as of June 12.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Enthusiasm for vaccines in Alberta’s two largest cities boosted the rest of the province over the government’s reopening threshold, creating disparities that could fuel pockets of coronavirus outbreaks.

The province will lift nearly all public-health restrictions Canada Day, after 70 per cent of eligible residents received at least one dose of vaccine as of June 17. But only 62 per cent of people over age 12 who live outside Calgary and Edmonton had received a shot as of Sunday, according to provincial data.

Alberta’s rate of first doses lags the rest of the country, even when urban centres are included. The province’s spotty coverage is a reminder, health experts argue, that Canada must not let up on its vaccine push, even as it clears high thresholds. In Alberta, rural communities are dragging down the vaccination average, and experts say working with local influencers, such as Indigenous leaders and those on Hutterite colonies, will help reverse the trend.

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“That is the key,” said Stephanie Smith, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital, noting the province’s vaccine task force has had discussions with Hutterite leaders.

She cautions that while clearing vaccination targets, such as 70 per cent of eligible people in Alberta, generates optimism, it can mask inequalities and translate into localized COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We do have to be mindful of the fact that we do have populations that still need to be addressed,” Dr. Smith said. “We are seeing clusters of cases in populations that have very low vaccination rates.”

Nearly 71 per cent of eligible people in Alberta have received at least one dose of vaccine as of Sunday, compared to 73 per cent across the country as of June 12. In Calgary, 76 per cent of residents over age 12 were partially immunized as of Sunday, according to provincial data. In Edmonton, that figure clocks in at 73 per cent. Meanwhile, only 20 per cent of eligible residents in High Level, which covers the majority of Alberta’s northwest, have accessed vaccines. In the southeast, just 37 per cent of eligible citizens in the County of Forty Mile are at least partially immunized.

High Level is vast, remote and sparsely populated, meaning it may be logistically difficult to access shots. Roughly 29 per cent of residents identify as First Nations or Inuit, according to the most recent census, compared to about 3 per cent across Alberta.

There have been about 25 immunization clinics in various Indigenous communities throughout the province, with some providing translation services, according to Alberta Health. Its effort to vaccinate Indigenous communities in a culturally sensitive way includes special clinics for youth and home visits, the government said.

Meanwhile, Alberta is also working with Hutterite colonies, which suffered in the early stages of the pandemic, to increase vaccination rates in rural regions like the County of Forty Mile. The province has organized vaccine clinics near colonies and is arranging blocks of appointments so large groups of people can go together, the government said. On Monday, the province and the Hutterian Safety Council (HSC) hosted a town hall to address questions about “vaccine safety and efficacy, and to encourage further vaccine uptake in Hutterite communities,” Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan said.

Hutterites share Anabaptist roots with Mennonites and Amish people, and health advocates in the community are promoting vaccines as compatible with their faith.

“Accepting and promoting vaccination is a very beneficial way Christians can contribute positively to their communities, the nation and the entire world,” the HSC said in a lengthy post on its website. HSC, which encouraged Hutterite colonies on the Prairies to follow public-health guidelines such as those around physical distancing, did not return messages seeking comment.

On Tuesday, Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, noted Indigenous communities and Hutterite colonies are neither homogeneous nor experiencing universally low vaccine coverage. The province, she said, is examining why certain regions have such low uptake and is trying to tailor solutions. This is slow and methodical work, she said.

“Each individual or each group will have a slightly different need, and so working through those specifics isn’t going to be as fast as offering the vaccine to those who are very keen,” Dr. Hinshaw told reporters.

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