Canada has among the highest rates of vaccination against COVID-19 in the world, with 63 per cent of the population having had at least one dose of vaccine, according to the website COVID19tracker.ca.
But already, there are signs that upward progress might be stalling in some places, and health officials are urging Canadians to keep up the momentum.
“Hopefully in Canada, we’re not going to follow those other countries where they were able to vaccinate quite quickly, the 60, 70 per cent of the population — and then they started plateauing.”
So far, Canada is doing well, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta.
“The actual daily number of vaccine doses compared to the population rate in Canada is amongst the highest right now. And it doesn’t appear to really be slowing down,” she said.
She doesn’t think the current pace will last forever, though.
“We’re expecting that there’s going to be a ceiling.”
Generally, Canadians seem pretty willing to get vaccinated. A Statistics Canada survey released in March, found that 77 per cent of Canadians were “very or somewhat willing” to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. A May poll conducted by Ipsos for Global News found that eight in 10 Canadians would take a COVID-19 vaccine “as soon as possible.”
However, Alberta already seems to be seeing fewer first dose appointments. While 68 per cent of eligible Albertans have gotten at least one dose of vaccine, across the province, more than 3,800 vaccine appointments were unfilled Tuesday at Alberta Health Services (AHS) sites, according to the health authority.
“First dose demand is slowing,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday. “The full opening of our province is in the hands of Albertans.”
Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary, thinks that convenience and accessibility are a big factor in why some Albertans haven’t yet rolled up their sleeves.
“When you see this kind of approach where the people in the cities are much more high uptake then than rural areas, you have to think there has to be an access issue,” she said.
There are lots of reasons why people might not get a vaccine, said Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology. Convenience is one, he said, and complacency is another.
“There are some people who just forget, you know, they’re complacent. They just don’t think about it,” he said.
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Constantinescu thinks it’s possible the vaccination campaign could become “a victim of its own success,” noting people are motivated by the perceived danger of catching the virus.
“These were people who might not have been totally gung-ho on vaccination as an idea, but they so badly want to go back to normal, they want their kids to go back to school that they were ready to do it,” she said.
But as the province opens up and life begins to go back to normal, she said, “We’re seeing some of that motivation being lost.”
Barriers exist too, whether they are language-related, or in communities that are “not necessarily well done by the health care system,” Halperin said, including people who feel they have been poorly treated in the past because of their race or religion.
Then, there are the vaccine-hesitant. Janessa Griffith, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and a researcher at Women’s College Hospital, recently studied Twitter conversations about the COVID-19 vaccine. She found that people expressed hesitancy around the vaccine for a variety of reasons.
“So these were concerns over safety, political or economic skepticism, misunderstandings of information, as well as confusing messaging from authority figures,” she said.
Public health advocates have to address all these reasons why people aren’t getting vaccinated separately, Halperin said.
“We have to have a lot of solutions,” he said. “As we’re getting towards those higher levels of uptake, the next thousand people that we immunize are going to be harder than the previous thousand because we’re getting into people who have more and more reasons why, or multiple reasons why they might not be getting the vaccine. And we have to address them all.”
Constantinescu warns that health authorities also have to push and remind people to get both doses of the vaccine, not just one.
Historically, adults are bad at following through on a full course of vaccines for other diseases, she noted. She stressed the importance of people fully protecting themselves against COVID-19 – especially as just one dose of vaccine is not nearly as effective as two at protecting against the new Delta variant.
“So one dose gives you some personal protection. It’s way better than not having a vaccine,” she said. “But you don’t have the same variant protection. You don’t have lasting immunity.”
“I think if you don’t have two doses and we don’t reach those high numbers of two doses, we’re going to be looking at more waves, more restrictions, more fires that have to be put out in the fall.”
Halperin remains optimistic about Canada’s progress though.
“The sky’s the limit,” when it comes to vaccination coverage, he said.
“I mean, when we look at some of the rates in some of the provinces for the populations that were first immunized, like individuals over 65 years of age, we’re above 90 per cent for some of those cohorts. So why not be able to achieve that in the younger cohorts as well?”
Saxinger is a bit less optimistic, guessing that vaccinations might stall around 85 per cent coverage, though she warns that there will be a lot of variability within this, with some communities having much higher rates of uptake than others.
Getting people vaccinated is “crucial” to returning to a more normal life, she said.
“I think that a lot of what we would like to see in terms of interactivity, in terms of travel, all hinge on strong rates of vaccination across communities and also worldwide.”
– With files from Nicole Gibillini and Emily Mertz, Global News