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An employee of the Cargill beef-packing plant receives a COVID-19 vaccination in High River, Alta. on April 29, 2021.Jason Dziver/The Canadian Press

Roughly half of the people who work in meat-packing plants in Alberta accepted a dose of vaccine to guard against the coronavirus as part of province’s immunization drive focused on protecting these labourers, with the rate of inoculation rate climbing over 80 per cent in and around Calgary.

The province has vaccinated nearly 6,800 employees at meat-packing facilities since the end of April, according to data provided by Alberta Health Services, or AHS. The most successful clinics were those held at work sites and staffed by local primary-care physicians rather than public-health officials, the data show.

Now, Alberta is ramping up mass vaccination clinics for people who work in the oil sands, another cohort hit hard by COVID-19. Ontario, meanwhile, is dispatching mobile vaccination units to businesses in hot spots and on Monday established a mass clinic at the largest wholesale fruit and produce distribution centre in Canada.

While these strategies make it easier for people to access shots, they risk skipping a key ingredient in overcoming vaccine hesitancy: trust.

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People are more likely to participate in mass clinics if they are familiar with those leading the charge, according to the three doctors in Alberta who spearheaded the most successful vaccination drives at meat-packing facilities. It is important, they said, to lay the groundwork ahead of the clinics, perhaps through town halls where people can ask questions and by getting community leaders to champion the cause.

“Trust is about relationships. It is about human beings. It is about being there,” said Gabriel Fabreau, one of the physicians behind the Calgary meat-packing immunization campaign. “Listen to them and then work on your communications in a way that can actually address what are the concerns.”

Alberta has held 14 clinics for meat-packing employees across the province since the end of April. All but one were held on work sites; a second has more clinic dates later this month. About 12,300 employees had access to these clinics and about 55 per cent were vaccinated, according to AHS data.

Dr. Fabreau and his colleagues ran the effort in the Calgary zone, where 81 per cent – 3,043 of the 3,740 eligible employees – received shots. These statistics do not account for employees who are immunized at locations other than their mass clinic.

Meat-packing employees are largely racialized immigrants, and the coronavirus flourished in their workplaces and communities. Vaccination teams had to address language and cultural barriers in order to succeed. The campaigns in Alberta’s oil sands and Ontario’s warehouses will garner traction if officials identify and remove the barriers unique to those work forces, the doctors said.

About 24,000 employees in the oil sands will be able to access shots through clinics at their work sites, according to AHS estimates. The health authority is leading the clinics in the oil sands, where thousands of people who live elsewhere in the province and country commute to work. This means participants may not know the people administering the program.

Nearly 25,000 people have COVID-19 in Alberta right now, and Fort McMurray has the highest rate of infection in the province, clocking in at 1,907 active cases for every 100,000 people. More than 2,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in the region’s work camps and projects throughout the pandemic, and Alberta is now working with energy companies to provide relief.

AHS led a vaccination clinic at Canadian Natural Resource Ltd.’s Horizon project May 2-4, giving 5,000 employees access to the shot. Only 1,614 people, or 32 per cent, were immunized at the clinic, according to AHS.

Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s Mildred Lake site is in the midst of a multiday clinic, and 1,930 of 7,900 employees were vaccinated through the effort as of Tuesday. At Imperial Oil Ltd.’s Kearl project, 503 of 2,500 employees had received a shot as of Tuesday. Suncor Energy Inc. is holding clinics for 6,553 employees at a number of its sites now, according to AHS.

Mass vaccination clinics at Cenovus Energy Inc.’s Christina Lake and Sunrise facilities start Friday.

Cenovus chief executive officer Alex Pourbaix said he suspects there will be “very strong take-up” of the on-site vaccination offer among workers.

“We have been making it clear that we think vaccinations are very important and part of getting this pandemic behind us, and I suspect that the overwhelming numbers of our staff will be of a similar view,” he said.

After all, he said, “if you get sick, you can’t work at our facilities.”

In conversations with Cenovus staff, Mr. Pourbaix has found most people eligible to get their first shots have already done so, he said. But if he can help encourage staff to get vaccinated, he said, “I’ll certainly do that, and my executives will also.”

Like many companies, it’s unlikely that Cenovus will require workers to get the shot given some people are medically unable to get vaccinated.

“I’m not sure that it’s really possible to ban people from the site, but we are certainly going to be really working hard and working with our staff to encourage them to get vaccinated,” he said.

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