Although COVID-19 cases are declining slightly in Alberta, two doctors treating patients from rural areas say a fifth wave may be inevitable if people in those communities are not vaccinated at a faster rate.
Provincial data says that 78.3 percent of eligible Albertans overall, including those 12 and older, are fully vaccinated and 86.4 percent have received at least one vaccine.
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But in at least 19 of the 63 municipalities in northern and southern Alberta, on average, 55 percent of residents rolled up their sleeves for a single dose. In some of those areas, that rate is less than 40 percent.
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Dr. Raman Kumar, general practitioner at Maxwell Medical in Fort McMurray, Alta., Says the rural population is overrepresented in intensive care units overwhelmed “simply by the fact that there has been more questioning about vaccines” among them.
“For example, here at Fort McMurray, we have had significant problems with our intensive care units full of patients and we transport our patients to other communities,” said Kumar.
“We had seven nurses who came from Newfoundland (to Fort McMurray during the fourth wave), so COVID has definitely been a major problem for rural communities.”
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In High Level, one of Alberta’s northernmost municipalities, 23% of residents have received at least their first dose of vaccine. The number is 39% in Forty Mile County in the south and 40% in Two Hills County in east-central Alberta.
On average, 55 percent of Albertans living in Manning, Peace River, Fairview, Spirit River, St. Paul, and Lethbridge have received their first dose.
“If we don’t achieve higher vaccination rates in some areas, we will risk a fifth wave and a sixth wave due to ongoing transmission,” said Dr. Finola Hackett, a rural family health physician who works in Pincher Creek.
“As we have seen with the fourth wave, a low vaccination rate did not protect against COVID and Delta variants, so there is a higher risk for sure in some rural areas.”
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Hackett and Kumar say that three main factors contribute to low vaccine intake in rural communities.
“I call them the three C’s,” Hackett said.
“There is complacency, convenience, and then the third is conspiracy.”
Hackett said complacency can be seen in some Albertans “who are especially younger” in rural communities who have told her they don’t want to get a vaccine because they think they are healthy. She said it tells them that the vaccine not only protects them from the virus, but also reduces the risk of transmission to other people with compromised immunity.
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Comfort is a matter of accessibility.
“The government and other partners send mobile clinics to some rural areas and that helped … but there are still some who might have problems with (transportation).”
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The third C and the most common reason rural Albertans don’t get vaccinated is the “disinformation pandemic,” Hackett said.
“Sometimes … a tight-knit community is sharing rapidly spreading misinformation,” he said.
“Certain rural areas, which tend to be more conservative, are more suspicious of any government program.”
Hackett and Kumar said they have met with several patients in rural Alberta, sometimes multiple times, and have persuaded them to get vaccinated.
“I just don’t think acting on the basis of frustration or polarization will get us anywhere, as difficult as it is to find the patience and energy to empathically understand why someone is hesitant to vaccinate,” Hackett said.
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Doctors said they are helping launch a new campaign in rural Alberta through a national multidisciplinary coalition called 19 to Zero that is working to change public perceptions of COVID-19 behaviors and build trust in vaccines.
The campaign called “It is never too late” includes a video filmed in an Alberta hospital. It shows a person breathing heavily while being evaluated and admitted to intensive care to be intubated.
“I just want to tell Albertans, what the heck, get vaccinated,” Kumar said.
“Let’s get back to normal life, and the way we can do that is by giving everyone our chance.”
© 2021 The Canadian Press