By Cole Parkinson
While vaccination rates across the province continue to trend upwards, the number in the Municipal District of Taber has plateaued.
With the municipality seeing lower rates than the provincial average, Dr. Jia Hu with 19 to Zero attended council’s July 12 meeting to gauge where councillors felt vaccine uptake could use a boost.
19 to Zero is “a dedicated coalition of academics, public health experts, behavioural economists, and creative professionals working to understand, engage with, and ultimately shift public perceptions around COVID-19 behaviours and vaccination.”
The group was launched last August at the University of Calgary.
“I used to be a medical officer of health with AHS and now sort of help lead the provincial vaccine roll-out group called 19 to Zero, and a number of other vaccine-related things,” explained Hu. “We’re in a pretty good spot provincially right now on average, but we definitely see pockets of lower uptake outside of the major urban centres. So we’ve been working with the Rural Municipalities Association, the business council, the vaccine ecosystem partners, to see if there’s anything we can do to increase vaccine uptake.”
“The uptake in the LGA (Local Geographic Area) of Taber for all ages is 36 per cent and for Alberta all ages, it’s about 64 per cent. So it is quite a bit lower than the provincial average,” added Hu.
Hu asked the council if they felt vaccine uptake has been an issue across the municipality.
He also mentioned the group has been working to get their mobile vaccination bus to municipalities where they felt access was a challenge.
“We did manage to get a fairly large mobile vaccine unit approved by the minister of health last week and we’re looking for places to take it. It probably would make sense if you felt access was an issue where you are.”
In turn, a question was posed back to Hu.
“When you look at our area, do you see that would be a valuable resource to come in with your mobile unit?” asked Coun. Tamara Miyanaga. “We do have a few plans and have different communities that would make it more accessible for people to access their vaccine. Rural people are used to travelling, but this is also the time of year where people are very busy in our farm occupations. So do you see it would be a good fit to make your way into our municipality and provide better access?”
With plenty of rural residents across the M.D. of Taber, Hu asked if council felt getting access to a vaccine was a barrier for some.
“It depends, actually. For example, do we think access is an issue and whenever I talk to the ministry of health or AHS, they don’t have an answer to this? But let’s say in your area, for example, your pharmacies that have vaccine or multiple pharmacies that have it? What’s your sense on how easy it is to get vaccine?” he asked.
“Our pharmacies have been excellent, I have no issues and even when there was vaccine availably at the hospitals, I have no complaints at all,” replied Miyanaga. “I just wondered if this provided a more targeted, specific approach to groups that may not have access, but I have no complaints in our area for accessibility.”
Others on council agreed the accessibility for vaccines in the Taber area is easy, but other areas required some driving.
“I would agree with the pharmacies locally here in Taber. Some of our challenges are outlying hamlets and villages. It’s probably not as easily accessible there. (It’s) not a long drive into Taber, Lethbridge or Medicine Hat, but that’s where I see it might be beneficial,” added Coun. Brian Brewin.
Brewin also touched on the fact there are large numbers of people who are choosing not to get vaccinated.
“I think that’s probably one of the challenges we have in the area. There are a fair amount choosing not to get vaccinated for their own personal reasons,” he said.
With that in mind, council inquired if the 19 to Zero group provides any type of information sessions on the vaccines available.
“When you see vaccine hesitancy across the province, do you see an improvement if your group comes in and does some specific education? I don’t have any statistics, it’s just general discussion through the community, but decisions for not getting vaccine have a wide variance from personal choice to science,” added Miyanaga.
“If we look at something like the urban populations that were hesitant before, part of what was really able to increase their willingness to take the vaccine was quite a community mobilization of the groups that traditionally serve people who were hesitant and tend to be like radicalized populations. I don’t think we’ve done the same in rural areas, which is something we’re looking to do,” responded Hu. “If you think people would like education, very happy to support that and if there are any sort of big or large non-governmental groups in the area, building some of those bridges tends to be beneficial. I think at the core of why people don’t get the vaccine, a lot of it is how much you trust the vaccine or the science, and the more trusted voices recommending it, the more likely people are to get it.”
With a sizeable gap between the provincial average and the M.D. in terms of people vaccinated, council expressed a hope that they can increase their numbers.
“I just have great concern that if the provincial average is 64 per cent and our M.D. is 36 per cent, perhaps we should at least try to improve our vaccination rate,” stated Miyanaga.
With the hamlets and rural M.D. residents in mind, a question arose if those people were already travelling to get their vaccinations.
“If we brought it into the hamlets, would people take advantage or are people already coming to Taber to get their shot?” asked Harris.
Another couple of potential avenues brought up included partnerships with AHS and providing information pamphlets this fall when kids go back to school.
“I think for our area, accessibility is wide-open because you can go to Brooks or Taber. One thing when I think of this from an outside perspective is partnering with public health to get some of that education out to some populations that may not be getting that communication because there is a lack of trust for those populations with the government,” said Deputy Reeve Jen Crowson. “If there were partnerships that could happen or a roll-out in September when school starts and kids are back in school, notices can be sent home and be translated appropriately. I do think there are a lot of families that are definitely removed because a lot of families didn’t send their kids back to public school this year. That could be a partial factor.”
“I think the school idea is a good one. Work with AHS and the South Zone folks, I totally agree,” added Hu.
Hu also suggested speaking with some of the larger employers in the area to provide information on the vaccinations. With Cornfest coming up later in August, Coun. Brewin suggested Zero to 19 bring their van down or set up a booth, which Hu agreed was a good idea.