Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu used Twitter on Monday to boast that Ottawa had delivered more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to the provinces and territories. She also made a point of telling Canadians how many – or rather how few – of the doses had actually been administered, which seemed a bit unfair.
After all, the provinces had been waiting months for Ottawa to procure an adequate supply of vaccines. And now with doses finally arriving in significant numbers, there was Ms. Hajdu highlighting the fact that Ontario had only delivered 2.5 million of the more than four million shots it had received as of Monday.
In Quebec, it was 1.6 million out of 2.3 million; in British Columbia, 894,000 out of 1.3 million.
Her tweets led to news stories saying that, as of the start of this week, only two-thirds of the vaccine doses received had actually been injected into Canadians.
Yes, Canada has a number of vaccination crises. No, this doesn’t appear to be one of them. Most of the doses that hadn’t been administered Monday were only delivered to the provinces two days earlier. Deliveries are intermittent whereas vaccinations are daily; for example, Ontario administered more than 100,000 doses on Tuesday.
There is also the fact that it would have been great if the number of doses available had been 20 million or 30 million, instead of the paltry 10 million that Ottawa has scratched together to date.
These points notwithstanding, there does appear to be a lingering hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccines – but it’s not that provinces are declining to give people shots. It’s that a surprisingly large number of people aren’t coming forward to get one.
You can see it in the data. As of March 27, just under 75 per cent of people over 80 – who were rightly given vaccine priority based on age – had received a first dose, according to federal government data. As age falls, those numbers plummet. For people over 75, it was under 50 per cent; for people over 70, it was under 30 per cent.
Both Quebec and Ontario have seen available spots at vaccination clinics for people 70 and over go unused each day, which is a big problem because it’s people in that age group who are most likely to die of COVID-19.
Toronto last weekend dropped the minimum age for vaccination at city clinics to 60, and is poised to lower it to 18 in the hardest hit neighbourhoods. Yet as of Monday, more than 37 per cent of people over the age of 80 and 47 per cent between age 70 and 74 still had not received a shot.
It’s never been enough to simply make a vaccine available in order for people to take it. Factors like complacency, distrust, lack of information and fear all play a role, and they can’t be overcome by standing at a podium and urging people to sign up for a jab.
The most recent polling shows that about two-thirds of Canadians won’t hesitate to take the first vaccine they are offered. That still leaves a lot of people who need convincing.
One key step has been to make sure workers in health care – doctors, nurses, staff – get vaccinated as quickly as possible. They are “the cornerstone of vaccine confidence,” according to a December, 2020, Health Canada document on vaccine hesitancy. People will follow their lead.
Another key is making things as simple as possible. Many people over 70 may not be jumping at available appointments because they can’t navigate online reservation systems, and need help.
Governments also need to make it easier for busy essential workers to get vaccinated. Ontario took a big step in that direction on Wednesday when it announced it will be prioritizing essential workers and people in the hardest-hit postal codes, regardless of age, and will use mobile and pop-up clinics to take shots directly to them.
These are the kinds of pro-active efforts that are needed to make the most of Canada’s belated vaccine rollout. Yes, lower the vaccination age in neighbourhoods with the highest case counts. Yes, give priority to people who have to go to work. Yes, take vaccines directly to communities and workplaces.
But governments must also relentlessly spread the message that the vaccines are safe and effective – and that a shot protects you and your neighbours. We are all in this together when it comes to ending the pandemic.
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