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opinion

On May 4, U.S. President Joe Biden set his country’s next goal in the COVID-19 fight: giving a first shot of vaccine to 70 per cent of American adults by July 4.

At first blush, that looks like a cinch. As of Wednesday, more than 146 million Americans aged 18 or older had already received at least one dose. The U.S. adult population is around 258 million, so to hit the 70 per cent target, the United States needs to administer just 34 million more first doses.

If vaccine supply were the only constraint, the U.S. would get there weeks ahead of schedule. Forget 70-per-cent adult coverage – America has enough domestic production to give a first shot to every adult by early summer.

But supply is not the issue. In mid-April, the U.S. was jabbing 3.4 million arms a day with first and second shots. But the pace has been dropping and now averages barely more than two million a day. There’s a growing shortage of willing arms.

That challenge – broadly known as vaccine hesitancy – is not unique to the United States. Polls suggest opposition is far stronger there, but Canada still has to be prepared to tackle hesitancy if this country is to save lives, reduce hospitalizations and end the pandemic.

The signs are positive, but also worrying. Consider Yukon. Ottawa has delivered far more vaccines to the territories than to the provinces, and as of May 3, 74 per cent of Yukon adults had been given a first shot, and 65 per cent a second.

That puts Yukon’s vaccination rate well ahead of the rest of Canada, and the U.S. The resultant protection is one reason why Yukon on Wednesday announced the elimination of quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers, as of May 25.

But as Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Brendan Hanley, explained at a press conference, reopening the territory to travel – for the vaccinated – is also in part about encouraging Yukoners who still haven’t gotten a jab to finally do so.

“We know that by incentivizing [vaccines], we will be able to reach a higher population uptake,” he said.

“This is a strategy,” he said in French, “to encourage people to get vaccinated.

And Yukon’s vaccination rate needs a nudge. Vaccine uptake appears to be stalling out. Between April 27 and May 5, just 362 Yukoners received a first shot.

In the rest of Canada, a steady stream of doses is finally landing, and the infrastructure to deliver them is finally humming. On Wednesday, in the hot zone of Brampton, Ont., Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lawrence Loh said that Peel Region, of which Brampton is a part, took three months to deliver its first 100,000 doses, but had delivered 100,000 in the previous seven days and was ramping up to 150,000 a week.

He said Peel has what it takes to give a first shot to 75 per cent of adults by the end of this month. The province of Ontario aims to get a first shot into 65 per cent of adults in the same period.

To hit those targets, and then surpass them, with vaccine uptake levels among teens (Pfizer is now approved for ages 12 and up) and adults of as close as possible to 100 per cent, Canada has to make vaccination not just available, but easily accessible, through clinics in workplaces, community hubs, shopping centres and even house calls.

And a refusal to get vaccinated must come with downsides, while getting vaccinated has to bring payoffs – such as Yukon’s promised quarantine-free travel.

As Yukon’s Dr. Hanley put it, as the number of unvaccinated people falls, “the relative efforts for those diminishing numbers becomes greater.”

Canada is already ahead of the most vaccine-hesitant U.S. states. The back-of-the-pack award goes to Mississippi, where as of Wednesday just 32 per cent of the population, or about 40 per cent of adults, had received a first shot. That’s below Canada’s figure, even though Mississippi is knee-deep in vaccines.

To spur both countries to do better, a little friendly cross-border competition is in order. Let’s gamify this race, for mutual benefit.

Canada, despite having fewer doses at its disposal, is breathing down America’s neck – as of Friday, 37 per cent of us had got a first shot here, versus 45 per cent there. If we do everything right, we’ll beat the Americans – unless they up their game. May the least hesitant win.