If Alberta is starting to crawl out of an awful third wave of the pandemic, it’s in part because provincial vaccine hesitancy and flat-out resistance have evolved with remarkable speed over the past six months.
The shift shows that many people’s opinions on the COVID-19 vaccine are not rigid – an important understanding as we near the end of the first vaccine rollout, when public-health officials are increasing their efforts to reach people who are indifferent, hesitant or resistant.
Last November, one in four Albertans told the Angus Reid Institute they would not get a COVID-19 vaccination – nearly double the percentage of that in Ontario and British Columbia. The polling firm recorded the same percentage at a startling 36 per cent in Alberta in January. Another 9 per cent of Albertans said that month they weren’t sure one way or the other.
But today, the number of those across Canada who say they will not get the vaccine has dropped, significantly so in Alberta. The pollster said this week that 16 per cent of Albertans say they will not be vaccinated (a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- three percentage points, 19 times out of 20). It’s still higher than the national average – again about double the rate of both Ontario and B.C. – but the Alberta numbers are coming closer to those in the rest of the country.
“I can’t express how happy I am that it has dropped, precipitously,” said Cheryl Peters, an epidemiologist at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.
With all the emphasis on vaccine hesitancy, it can be lost that most Albertans are keen on vaccines. More than 51 per cent of Albertan adults and teens have at least one dose, Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said Thursday. That’s on par with Friday’s national rate of 49 per cent of Canadians having one dose. Alberta also has a high-for-Canadian-provinces rate of second shots or full vaccination, at 8 per cent.
But months ago, there were more people in the province skeptical that COVID-19 was a serious public-health threat – a factor closely related to vaccine hesitancy or resistance – than there are now.
Alberta has only in recent days been able to shake the unhappy status of having the highest infection rate in North America (the province is now second to Manitoba). Certainly some views have been changed by news of near-overwhelmed ICUs and delayed surgeries, or by personal acquaintance with someone who became ill with COVID-19.
Vaccine hesitancy rates across the country have also gone down thanks to the “seeing is believing” trend, as Angus Reid Institute president Shachi Kurl describes it. Watching parents, grandparents and friends get the vaccine is a powerful motivator in both assuaging safety fears about vaccines, and increasing FOMO. “Fear of missing out is a powerful emotion,” Ms. Kurl said.
Albertans have that, and they also have particularly close ties to family and colleagues in the western United States, where vaccines are widely available. And it’s not lost that the U.S. is in a better position now because of near-universal availability of vaccines there.
To be sure, there have been missteps in the vaccine messaging. Premier Jason Kenney has at times been overly solicitous to those who didn’t want to get the vaccine. The fact that some United Conservative Party MLAs, some of whom were also opposed to broad health restrictions, haven’t talked about getting the vaccine – even when specifically asked – is a stand for personal privacy but not a compelling demonstration of leadership.
But the messaging that vaccines are the clear path out of restrictions seems to be getting through. Angus Reid pointed out vaccine uptake has been strong across the country despite deeply conflicting and confusing messages on the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine from federal bodies and political leaders.
And research by The New York Times has found the best way to talk about vaccines with “COVID skeptics” – those who don’t trust that the disease is serious and who believe unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about COVID-19 – is to emphasize that “vaccination is their own, personal choice – one that can help them protect friends and family members.”
To people who can’t wait to get vaccinated, it’s baffling that Mr. Kenney and other politicians have underscored the message of personal choice. But those words aren’t for vaccine cheerleaders, they’re for skeptics.
Governments across Canada will soon have to decide how much effort to focus on the vaccine-hesitant or -resistant. Manitoba, for one, says it will announce a vaccine incentive program next week. The province seems to be taking a page from the U.S. states and cities offering cash and gift cards. Watch for a race to come up with the most creative vaccine gifts to become a thing here, as well.
But the country is now on track to have supplies possibly sufficient to shorten the interval between the two shots. It’s good for public health if more or most Canadians can be fully vaccinated in a much shorter timeline than planned. And it might be advantageous from a messaging point of view, too.
As Ms. Kurl said, fear of being left out is a powerful motivator. Some skeptics changed their minds when they saw or read of vaccine successes in Israel, the U.S. and Britain. I saw more FOMO this month, when Alberta became the first province to announce it was offering the COVID-19 vaccinations to teenagers, too.
If the vaccine-resistant see people getting their second jabs, and confidently eating at restaurants, or going to school and business openings – maybe even some day shedding their masks, or being able to travel – it might change their minds about the first shot.
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