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Good morning! Wendy Cox here.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney trumpeted that an important threshold had been crossed last week on the province’s path to becoming the first in the country to lift nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on July 1.

Alberta’s aggressive reopening plan hinged on vaccination uptake, with restrictions ditched two weeks after 70 per cent of the eligible population in Alberta had received at least one shot against the coronavirus. That happened last Thursday.

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“We did it. You did it,” Mr. Kenney said.

But reporter Carrie Tait had a close look today at vaccination rates and discovered that some parts of the population contributed to the trend more than others, with residents of Calgary and Edmonton hauling up the vaccination rates of other areas where as few as one in five has had a dose.

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.

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.

Those centres have helped boosted the province’s numbers to an overall rate of 71 per cent of eligible people with at least one shot. Even with that big-city lift, Alberta still lags behind the rest of the country: B.C.’s rate on Tuesday was 76 per cent of those aged 12 and up with at least one dose.

In High Level, in Alberta’s northwest, only 20 per cent of eligible residents have accessed vaccines. In the southeast, just 37 per cent of eligible citizens in the County of Forty Mile are at least partially immunized.

That’s cause for concern, experts say. Stephanie Smith, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital, said while exceeding 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.

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“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.”

She noted working with local influencers, such as Indigenous leaders and those on Hutterite colonies, will help reverse the trend.

“That is the key,” Dr. Smith said.

Alberta’s vaccine task force has had discussions with Hutterite leaders. Those communities suffered in the early stages of the pandemic and Alberta health officials have been working to increase vaccination rates in rural regions like the County of Forty Mile. Vaccine clinics have been set up near colonies and appointments are being arranged so large groups of people can go together. On Monday, the province and the Hutterian Safety Council 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.

“Accepting and promoting vaccination is a very beneficial way Christians can contribute positively to their communities, the nation, and the entire world,” the Hutterian Safety Council said in a lengthy essay on its website.

In the vastness of High Level, getting a shot could be logistically difficult. 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.

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Health officials have set up 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.

Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, on Tuesday 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 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.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

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