COVID-19: Southern Alberta communities lagging behind on first-dose immunizations

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WATCH ABOVE: Around 71 per cent of eligible Albertans have received their first COVID-19 immunization, but in some southern Alberta communities, that percentage is much lower. Eloise Therien has more on Alberta Health Services’ take on the discrepancy, and what pharmacies in rural communities are noticing. – Jun 24, 2021

Some southern Alberta communities are seeing lower-than-average COVID-19 vaccination rates, which could be cause for concern as the province approaches Stage 3 of Alberta’s Open for Summer plan.

The province reached its goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of the eligible population with one dose on June 17, meaning virtually all COVID-19 restrictions will be eased come the first of July.

Read more: COVID-19: Alberta public health measures to end on July 1

Despite this, many communities in southern Alberta are sitting at a much lower first-dose percentage, according to provincial data.

As of Thursday morning, the County of Lethbridge was sitting at 54.7 per cent; the Fort Macleod area at 51 per cent; the County of Taber at 43.7 per cent.

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Dr. Vivien Suttorp, the medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services in the South Zone, said numbers differ greatly in each community.

“If you look at Lethbridge — north, south, west Lethbridge — excellent immunization rates in all age groups, especially in the seniors as well,” she said.

“Then you look in the County of Lethbridge, Fort Macleod areas, Taber areas: low uptake.”

Read more: Here’s what to know about relaxed travel rules for fully vaccinated Canadians

Suttorp believes there are four main factors that could be contributing to the vaccine discrepancy, including complacency, access, autonomy and trust.

Vaccines are being administered in a variety of settings, including AHS clinics and at pharmacies.

“The changes, difference in vaccines — in addition to the differences in the variants that are out there and the protection of vaccine and variants, the difference in spacing of vaccines — this is all very, very confusing and concerning. And difficult to navigate.”

However, Suttorp said the areas of southern Alberta that are seeing lower uptake have been known to have lower rates of other vaccinations in the past.

“Fort Macleod, County of Lethbridge, Coaldale, Vauxhall, Taber, Bow Island areas, County of Fort Mile, those areas have very low uptake. It’s the same for influenza, it’s the same for childhood immunizations,” she explained.

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“The overall message is that in communities with low immunization rates, there is an ongoing risk of disease spread and outbreaks.”

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Alberta’s top doctor says surge in hospitalizations of known COVID-19 variants unlikely due to vaccines – Jun 22, 2021

The province recently launched a vaccine lottery to incentivize residents to receive their immunization, with a variety of prize to be won.

Suttorp said she isn’t aware of any incentives directly related to AHS, but they will continue to look into what the drivers of low immunization rates are, and the continuation of making vaccines more accessible outside a clinical setting.

Global News spoke with several pharmacies in the aforementioned communities, which noted second-dose appointment currently far outweigh first-dose appointments.

Dustin Reimer, owner of the Fort Pharmacy in Fort Macleod, said those who are coming in for first dose appointments may have had a change of heart.

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“Some people have told me that they’ve had family on one side saying that they should do it, and family on the other side saying they shouldn’t, so they’ve felt very conflicted,” he said.

“Some people have been getting it where they let us know, ‘The only reason I’m doing it is for travel,’ they said if there wasn’t a requirement, they probably wouldn’t be doing it.”

Read more: COVID-19: Kenney says 1st vaccine dose uptake in Alberta now advancing ‘in inches’

Reimer added they haven’t had many surprises when it comes to supply.

“Other than that one hiccup (on our) vaccines coming two days later than expected, we have been able to get the vaccine as we order it,” Reimer said.

Data from the province’s vaccination data map doesn’t include all vaccination numbers from Indigenous communities in Alberta.

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