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Alberta leads country in people who won't take COVID vaccine — but sees big jump among those who want it ASAP

Although Albertans seem to be warming up to the idea of getting the COVID-19 vaccine — with the biggest increase of all provinces in the percentage of those willing to get it immediately — they also continue to lead the country with the most who would give it a flat no.

More than a quarter of Albertans say they won't get vaccinated

Gisèle Lévesque, 89, became the first Canadian to receive a vaccination against COVID-19 at CHSLD Saint-Antoine in Quebec City on Monday. Alberta has had the biggest jump in any province of those wanting to get the vaccine immediately, a new poll suggests. (Pat Lachance/Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services)

Although Albertans seem to be warming up to the idea of getting the COVID-19 vaccine — with the biggest increase of all provinces in the percentage of those willing to get it immediately — they also continue to lead the country with the most who would give it a flat no.

The shift comes amid weeks of Alberta racking up new record highs of COVID-19 cases almost daily and frequently beating out provinces with double or triple the populations to hold the dubious distinction of the highest total and new active cases per day.

It also comes as the Alberta government starts to roll out the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week — a shot that it says it won't make mandatory, raising questions about how the province will try to persuade Albertans to take it and how far employers and service providers can go to require it of staff and customers.

As the vaccinations begin, Angus Reid Institute released poll results Monday suggesting there has been a "notable jump" in the number of people who would take it immediately — especially in Alberta.

The percentage of Albertans who say they'd roll up their sleeves to get the vaccine ASAP has soared from less than a third a month ago to nearly half now, according to the survey from Angus Reid Institute.

Alberta also has the highest percentage of people of all provinces who flat out refuse to take the vaccine. Premier Jason Kenney and the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, right are encouraging Albertans to get a vaccine, but say they won't make it mandatory. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Only 32 per cent of Albertans said a month ago they would want to immediately get the vaccine but that leapt to 47 per cent last week, the polling company said.

That's almost as high as the national average of 48 per cent of Canadians who say they'd get the vaccine immediately.

27% of Albertans say they won't take the vaccine

It was the biggest jump in any province of those wanting to get the vaccine immediately, a 47-per-cent leap, compared with an average increase of 20 per cent nationwide.

Another 19 per cent of Albertans now say they'd get the COVID-19 vaccine eventually, Angus Reid said. 

But Alberta also has the highest percentage of people of all provinces who flat out refuse to take the vaccine, the poll suggests: 27 per cent, followed by 21 per cent in Saskatchewan and 21 per cent in Manitoba.

The national average was 14 per cent.

The online survey of 1,603 Canadians was completed Dec. 8-11. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Angus Reid found the biggest reasons that people say they'd hesitate to take the vaccine immediately related to concerns over safety — short- and long-term side effects from a biological agent that was developed in less than a year. Vaccines can sometimes take up to 10 years to develop, test, trial and receive regulatory approval from public health agencies.

Cases and hospitalizations hit new records

The number of infections and deaths in Alberta have soared dramatically in the past month. The province broke a number of records on Monday, racking up:

  • The most new infections in a single day at 1,887.
  • The most total active cases (21,123).
  • The highest number of people being treated in hospital for COVID (716).
  • And the most in ICU beds (136).

There were another 15 deaths reported, bringing the total to 733, an increase of more than 100 in one week.

Vaccinations begin this week but won't be mandatory

The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Alberta will start being given to the highest priority groups this week, but the United Conservative government has said it won't make the vaccine mandatory.

The first 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived Monday night in Alberta. Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta's first COVID-19 vaccination would take place on a nurse in south Calgary on Tuesday afternoon, as the province begins immunizing ICU doctors and nurses, respiratory therapists and eligible continuing-care staff in Edmonton and in Calgary.

The cities were chosen because that's where COVID-19 case numbers are highest and where the health system faces the greatest capacity challenges. As of Monday, Calgary had 7,268 active cases, up from 7,127 reported on Saturday, and Edmonton had 9,778, up from 9,548.

Alberta plans to administer first doses of the COVID vaccine to 29,000 health-care workers by the end of December and hopes to have the first doses available for long-term care residents by the end of the month.

But the government has warned it will take months for the vaccine to reach everyone who wants a shot — and it doesn't plan to force people to get it.

Kenney has described a mandatory inoculation program as "ridiculous."

"We're not going to strap people down to force them to be injected with the vaccine," Kenney said.

His government will recommend that people get it, he said.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, has promised a campaign to help convince Albertans of the benefits.

She has repeatedly assured the public that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is effective, pointing out that there have been no serious adverse reactions reported among the tens of thousands of people who have already received the vaccine around the world.

However, how the government is going to encourage people to get vaccinated is not yet clear. Requests for information from government and health officials about an inoculation campaign did not receive a response.

Whether businesses can require vaccinations

Meanwhile, some are wondering how far businesses and service providers can go in requiring vaccinations of employees or customers.

Lorian Hardcastle of the University of Calgary says businesses 'can certainly' impose conditions on delivering services but are bound by human rights laws. (Zoom)

Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor in the faculty of law and the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, says businesses "can certainly" impose conditions on delivering services but are bound by human rights laws.

"For example, if you can't receive the vaccine for medical reasons, WestJet couldn't deny you the ability to fly on their planes without providing you with reasonable accommodation," said Hardcastle.

She said that could include proof of a negative COVID-19 test result 24 hours before takeoff.

"There is that requirement, not only with employers, and not only in the public sector, to accommodate human rights, but also private service providers."

In a statement to CBC News, WestJet and Air Canada indicated it was too early to comment on possible vaccine travel requirements.

Hardcastle pointed out that health-care workers in some parts of the country are already required to either vaccinate or wear a mask to prevent the spread of seasonal influenza within hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Employers could mandate a similar policy for the COVID-19 vaccine. They would have to provide special accommodation for employees who may request an exemption under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but Hardcastle says there would only be a few options.

WestJet and Air Canada say it's too early to say how vaccination requirements may look for air travellers. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"You have fairly limited ability to challenge your employers," particularly in a health-care setting, Hardcastle said.

Hardcastle says employers might be reluctant to pursue such a policy since the vaccine is new.

But she points out the vaccine has already been tested on people and approved by Health Canada.

She says, because of that, the window to make an argument becomes quite narrow.  She says a pregnant woman might be more successful in arguing against a mandatory vaccine because vaccines haven't been tested on pregnant women.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission issued statements earlier this year regarding COVID-19 and individual rights around mandatory mask requirements and how, for example, someone with a disability or a health condition, such as asthma, could be exempted from wearing a mask.

Vaccine safety campaign

Health-care providers and researchers say one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been battling what's referred to as the infodemic — the spread of false information and conspiracy theories around COVID-19.

Dr. Ilan Schwartz describes it as a "raging epidemic of misinformation." 

Dr. Ilan Schwartz says health-care professionals must battle an 'infodemic' of misinformation and conspiracy theories around COVID-19. (Zoom)

"We've come to a point where expertise and science is being given an equal platform to people who have opinions on Facebook," said Dr. Schwartz, who is an infectious disease physician and an assistant professor in the division of infectious disease at the University of Alberta.

This vaccine has been developed at lightning pace, but there have been no corners cut.- Dr. Ilan Schwartz, infectious disease specialist

He says physicians need to make it clear to their patients and also to the community that this is something that is safe and effective and recommended.

He says even though the vaccine may appear to have been fast tracked, it is safe. 

"This vaccine has been developed at lightning pace, but there have been no corners cut," he said.

"It's important that we, you know, gain and maintain the trust of the public. And so we want to be able to give them all the information that they are going to require in order to make an informed and safe decision."


Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said 48 per cent of Albertans said they would want to get the vaccine as soon as possible in the latest Angus Reid poll, but in fact it was 47 per cent.
    Dec 15, 2020 9:46 AM MT

About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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