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COVID stalks unvaccinated in rural Alberta

“There's more COVID cases in our community than we've seen since the beginning,” says Paul McLauchlin, reeve of Ponoka County
Alberta vaccine bus jpg
Cutline: Alberta has rolled out a mobile vaccination clinic to reach rural communities across the province. It can provide 300 vaccinations a day. | Submitted

Low vaccine uptake in Alberta’s rural communities is partly due to an overall rural culture of independence and skepticism, says Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin.

The fourth wave of COVID-19 has come to rural regions that were relatively unscathed during the first three waves of the pandemic.

McLauchlin said rural Alberta is not unique and low rural vaccination rates are the same across the country.

“It's really a cultural ethos of rural folks [that] we're independent. The majority of people, they don't like being told what to do. They're sceptical. And that's just that's the culture of rural Canadians and rural North Americans,” McLauchlin said.

In his home county of Ponoka where he serves as reeve, he is surprised at just how low vaccination rates have been

“It's a little bit shocking,” McLauchlin said.

In Ponoka County, some 54.9 per cent of residents have their first dose, while 48.9 per cent of all ages have two doses.

As a result, the community is seeing high active cases counts, with 266 active cases, out of a total 3,720 cases they have seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

The community has had 19 deaths and they have 966.4 active cases per 100,000 people, compared to Edmonton which has 332.5 active cases per 100,000, Calgary with 295 per 100,000 and Red Deer with 720.9 active cases per 100,000.

“There's more COVID cases in our community than we've seen since the beginning,” McLauchlin said.

McLauchlin said he is giving grace and compassion to those who are unvaccinated because they are making choices based off their entrenched belief systems, but he is concerned about misinformation spreading through the community.

"What really worries me is ultimately this misinformation is going to lead to people getting sick and possibly people passing away," McLauchlin said.

McLauchlin said during the first three waves he didn't know too many people who were personally impacted by COVID-19 infections, but this wave has made the virus personal for many living in rural Alberta. 

In Medicine Hat and neighbouring Cypress County, there are 988 active cases per 100,000 and 1,035.5 active cases per 100,000, respectfully. The city has 673 active cases and since Aug. 28 they have had 20 more residents pass away.

“Now it's getting real,” McLauchlin said.

Leading up to this fourth wave a lot of the low vaccination rates can be blamed on procrastination or vaccine hesitancy, the reeve said, because there was no rush to get the shot if you didn’t know anybody with COVID-19.

“Some of these people are really just victims of the reality where they're getting mixed messages and they're not really seeing COVID-19 as real,” McLauchlin said.

Early on, access may have been an issue for those in rural communities, with McLauchlin having to drive an hour to a pharmacy to get his shot, but now harvest season may be interfering with vaccination uptake in farming communities.

Farmers are on their tractors all day long trying to get their crops off and don’t have time to go get their shot right now.

“We need to be compassionate and have each other's back and not shame anybody and just let's just get this over with.”

Some rural Alberta pharmacies are seeing a rush for residents to get the vaccines now that the province has implemented a vaccine passport system, although some of them are doing it begrudgingly.

Rod Hozack, pharmacist at the Pharmasave in Redcliff, Cypress County, said there has been a rush from people looking for both vaccinations and rapid tests.

“They’re begrudgingly getting vaccine,” Hozack said.