Vaccine hesitancy, rising R-value mean Alberta can't let up on pandemic fight, expert says

A rising R-value for COVID-19 in Alberta coupled with a stubborn and country-leading rate of vaccine hesitancy are two signs that the province’s battle to beat back the pandemic still has hurdles to overcome, says a Calgary infectious diseases expert.

'We absolutely need to get a better push on vaccine uptake'

A health-care provider performs a COVID-19 test in this undated handout photo. (Alberta Health Services)

A rising R-value for COVID-19 in Alberta coupled with a stubborn and country-leading rate of vaccine hesitancy are two signs that the province's battle to beat back the pandemic still has hurdles to overcome, says a Calgary infectious diseases expert.

Alberta's provincewide R-value — which represents the number of people infected by each infected person — rose to 0.84 from July 5 to July 11.

That's up from the period before that, when the R-value was 0.75. The rate is calculated once every two weeks. 

Meanwhile, a poll released Wednesday by the Angus Reid Institute suggests that vaccine hesitancy is more common in Alberta than in the rest of the country.

The survey found that one in five Albertans remain disinclined to get a shot — twice the national average. 

"We absolutely need to get a better push on vaccine uptake," said Craig Jenne, an associate professor at the University of Calgary in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases.

"We actually rank dead last in Canada, among all provincial and territorial jurisdictions, for vaccination. So we have the lowest vaccine rate in the country."

According to the poll, in B.C. the hesitancy rate is 12 per cent, and in Ontario and Quebec it's just nine per cent.

"Hesitancy appears to be a more significant problem regionally, jumping to 22 per cent of the population in Alberta, and 15 per cent each in Saskatchewan and Manitoba," the institute's poll report said.

The institute noted that hesitancy has declined in both Alberta and Saskatchewan since the beginning of the year, when the rate was 45 per cent in Alberta and 26 per cent in its eastern neighbour.

Jenne says vaccine hesitancy has always been a phenomenon in Alberta, leading in the past to vaccine preventable outbreaks of such things as whooping cough.

"So this a barrier in Alberta that we have to continue to work to reduce," he said.

And while there are some encouraging trends — such as continued relatively low daily case counts and hospitalizations currently below 100 — there are other troubling trends, Jenne said.

One key metric, the positivity rate — the percentage of positive tests from the number of total tests on a given day — had been heading downward steadily since the spring. But it had climbed to 1.4 per cent by Wednesday.

On July 10, it had fallen to just 0.50 per cent, the lowest it had been since last summer.

And while daily case counts remain relatively low, they're now creeping upward after hovering in the low 30s for several days. There were 69 new cases reported Tuesday.

"It does look like the virus is beginning to spread again. And this is something that is somewhat concerning, and definitely something that we have to keep our eye on and be ready to respond to," Jenne said.

"And I'm not advocating for closures, or lockdowns, but we have to look and say, if we're seeing the bulk of viral transmission occurring in this particular segment, or this activity, are there any things we can do to help reduce that.… They don't have to be black-and-white, absolute restrictions."

Jenne said it is also a concern that serology reports indicated during the third wave that only three to four per cent of Albertans had been exposed to the virus.

Craig Jenne is an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"So that still suggests that of that unvaccinated group, there's very little protection there. 

If all of the hospitalizations we've seen, all of the loss of life was really only coming from infecting four or five per cent of Albertans, we still have 40 per cent almost with no vaccine protection," he said.

"So we have to be careful that those people are still somehow protected from the virus even if they're not vaccinated, and the only way to do that is to keep the numbers of cases low."

Vaccine passports

The Angus Reid Institute poll also asked respondents whether they supported the idea of vaccine passports to certify that a person has been inoculated in order to attend certain events, travel, or to go back to work. 

"A majority of Albertans are supportive of this type of policy for air travel, but less so for domestic application," the institute said in its poll. 

While 77 per cent of people in Ontario and 83 of Quebecers said they'd support vaccine passports to board a commercial flight, only 55 per cent of Alberta respondents approved of the idea. 

And just 43 per cent of Albertans said they'd be willing to show proof of vaccination to go to work, compared with 64 per cent among Ontario respondents and 61 per cent of respondents nationally.

The Angus Reid Institute conducted its online survey from July 9 to 13 among a representative randomized sample of 2,040 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum.

Online surveys do not have a margin of error that can be accurately calculated. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The margin of error is larger when looking at provincial-level results.


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