As the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Alberta has implemented a few different ways to try to boost vaccine uptake.
That includes a $1-million draw for those who got vaccinated over the summer, a $100 incentive and the most recent one: the restrictions exemption program or as it is more commonly known, a vaccine passport.
During a briefing on Sept. 21, Premier Jason Kenney said 120,000 people have received their first COVID-19 vaccine shot since the $100 incentive was announced at September’s start — but experts say the number is more likely attributed to the later-announced vaccine passport.
Kenney said the new vaccine passport initiative is off to a strong start.
“I’m pleased to report that in the 72 hours after we announced this program, more than 78,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered, and the momentum continues, with more than 23,000 doses administered yesterday,” he said Sept. 21.
But he went on to highlight the vaccine incentive.
“As of today, 81.4 per cent of eligible Albertans have now gotten at least one shot, and 72.8 per cent have gotten two shots, both sharp increases from just over a week ago. In fact, since we launched the $100 incentive for people to get vaccinated about three weeks ago, we’ve seen over 120,000 people step up for their first shot, which has increased that share of the population by about three percentage points.”
The incentive program was announced on the morning of Sept. 3.
From Sept. 3 to 15 — a 13-day span — 154,575 Albertans received a COVID-19 shot, according to Alberta Health data.
The vaccine passport was announced on the evening of Sept. 15.
From Sept. 16 to 26 — an 11-day span — 237,151 people received a COVID-19 shot.
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Looking at first-dose uptake solely, 49,850 people got theirs from Sept. 3 to 15, while 66,551 got theirs from Sept. 16 to 20. When Kenney spoke on Sept. 21, he was off by about 3,600 doses in his 120,000 estimate since the total was 116,401. (NOTE: The Alberta government’s vaccine numbers fluctuate on its data page. The above numbers are accurate as of the end of Sept. 27).
Calgary psychologist Dr. Brent Macdonald said Kenney is misrepresenting reality by lumping the $100 incentive and passport together.
“The uptake after the announcement was made for the $100 gift card went up by about 20 per cent from the previous week and then dropped down to about 10 per cent within a few days after that, so it really wasn’t a significant uptick,” he said.
Read more: Days into Alberta’s $100 COVID-19 vaccine incentive, experts say initiative is futile, insignificant
Harrison Fleming, the premier’s deputy press secretary, told Global News that Kenney “was not simply crediting previously announced incentives.”
“It’s clear that the premier was referring to the entire raft of actions that the government of Alberta has taken to increase the number of vaccinated Albertans,” he said via email.
“Vaccines are the most effective way to combat COVID-19, and that’s why Alberta’s government has been doing everything it can to get as many Albertans vaccinated as possible.”
Amy Kaler, a University of Alberta sociology professor, said Kenney is being “deliberately misleading.”
“That statement is true in a literal sense: vaccine uptake has indeed increased a lot since he announced the $100 giveaway. But what is driving that increase is not the giveaway; it’s the announcement of a vaccine passport,” she said.
“We’ve seen this in jurisdictions all over the world: people who’ve put off getting vaccinated will get their shots if the shots are a gateway to other things they want to do, like being able to go out and socialize or get back together with friends and family.”
Calgary political scientist Lori Williams said Kenney doesn’t want to admit he was wrong and is “clearly reluctant” to acknowledge what most experts said when he announced the cash incentive: vaccine passports are more effective.
Mandating vs. free market
Vaccine passports work, Kaler agreed. Selectively paying people to get shots does not work and breeds resentment because the payout only goes to people who have delayed getting their shots — not the ones who got them earlier, she explained.
“Kenney wants to play down the power of vaccine passports because he’s scared of the minority within his party who are opposed to any kind of requirement or mandate,” Kaler said.
“Buying vaccinations by paying people $100 for each shot is more appealing to the right-wing because it’s sort of like a free market for vaccination while mandating vaccines or creating vaccine requirements is less appealing because it involves state regulation of private enterprises.”
It’s why the vaccine passport is called the restrictions exemption program, she explained.
“His base gets bent out of shape at the thought of any measures that involve mandates or restrictions, even though those measures have been proven to be the best way to get the remainder of the eligible population vaccinated and to get everybody back on track to a more normal life,” Kaler said.
“This is also why the vaccine passport program is called the restrictions exemption program, which is not a term that’s used anywhere else in the world, but for Kenney’s base, he can sell it better if it sounds like it’s getting rid of restrictions rather than introducing them.”
‘Exponentially larger numbers’
Just look at the evidence; the numbers are clear, Williams said. The incentive program had nowhere near the impact the passport had.
Read more: Alberta health-care workers desperate for COVID-19 help: ‘We are treading water as furiously as we can’
“It was quite clear from evidence in a number of other jurisdictions which would be the more effective approach, so why he doesn’t want to acknowledge that is difficult to decipher other than that he doesn’t want to acknowledge that the half measure that he first took was insufficient. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that he made an error or that his judgment was in any way flawed.”
Kenney consistently doesn’t address criticisms, Williams explained, adding that there’s a pattern of “deny, pretend there’s nothing wrong, underplay what’s wrong with things, attack people and have your staff attack people for disagreeing with you, then agree with them the next week and pretend there was never any other thought in the government’s mind, that the delay in actually coming to that conclusion was entirely justified.”
“He has, throughout this pandemic, been trying to find some sort of middle ground between taking the virus seriously and bringing in effective policies and finding some justification for thinking that it’s a flu and we don’t need to have more restrictions,” she explained.
“In the process, he’s managed, as we’ve seen repeatedly, to anger everyone, those who want him to do more and those who want him to do less, although they’re in the minority.”
As a result, Kenney has been “far too late” in responding to the crises that have emerged, Williams said.
“His attitude has been that he’s done a great job, that he’s proud of what he’s done. He’s gotten the policy wrong, and he’s been arrogant in the process,” she said.
“That arrogance is a real liability for someone in Alberta, given the history of the Progressive Conservative Party and what that arrogance and entitlement did to them.”