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After initial rush of keeners, uptake for COVID-19 vaccines on the Prairies has been slow growing

The rush to get initial doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the Prairies appears to be weakening — not stalling but definitely slowing down — with the rate of the eligible population getting a first shot hovering around 70 per cent in the three provinces.

Getting to 80% is doable but it won't be easy, says U of A health policy professor

People getting vaccinations at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary, Alta. The province has launched a lottery with three $1-million prizes and trips to persuade people to get vaccinated. (Alberta Health Services)

The rush to get initial doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the Prairies appears to be weakening — not stalling but definitely slowing down — with the rate of the eligible population getting a first shot hovering around 70 per cent in the three provinces.

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is warning the country has to up its vaccination game, so efforts are being made to persuade more people to roll up their sleeves.

"We're seeing sort of a saturation of first doses ... and that is a concerning phenomenon that we need to address," said Dr. Philippe Lagace-Wiens, a medical microbiologist at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.

Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, is seeing the same trend in Alberta. He is optimistic the province can surpass 80 per cent "if we really try."

"It's going to be tough. It's going to require that we use every tool at our disposal," Caulfield said.

Lagace-Wiens and Caulfield say people who have not yet been vaccinated include pandemic deniers, people who are hesitant and those who face mobility, cultural or socio-economic barriers.

Data compiled by the Manitoba government through opinion surveys and online feedback in March estimated 69 per cent of Manitobans were "keeners" intent on getting doses as soon as they could.

It said another 12 per cent were likely to get the vaccine but were not in a rush, about nine per cent were skeptical and undecided, and fewer than 10 per cent were adamant that they would not get a shot.

In Winnipeg, Man., hundreds lined up in the fields near a supersite offering walk-in appointments on June 17. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The government released updated data this month that estimated the number of keeners had risen while all other categories had dropped.

Caulfield said it makes sense that some hesitant people are won over as time goes on and they see more of their neighbours getting vaccines, but noted it can take time.

"Normalizing that vaccination process ... can help people feel comfortable about getting vaccinated."

Governments are trying carrots more than sticks to win over the hesitant. Manitoba and Alberta are offering lotteries with prizes totalling millions of dollars. There are ad campaigns urging people to get a vaccine to protect their loved ones, or to help move a province to the point where it can reopen concert venues, theatres and large sporting events.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said this week his government will not hold a lottery.

"You get to protect your family, your friends, your loved ones and everyone around you from this COVID virus," Moe said Tuesday.

"If you like to gamble, then I would suggest to you don't get your shot. The prize is not what you think."

Manitoba has targeted some geographic areas where vaccine uptake has been low. In Winnipeg's inner-city, a mobile clinic has reached out to the homeless and others facing daily struggles that can make a vaccine a back-burner concern.

In some rural areas south of Winnipeg, where vaccine uptake has been nearly half of the Manitoba average, health officials are trying to engage religious and community leaders to get more people onside.

A drive-thru immunization clinic in Regina, Sask. That province won't launch incentives, with Premier Scott Moe noting that gamblers are taking a big risk of the wrong kind by not getting vaccinated. (Cory Herperger/CBC)

Doctors Manitoba, the provincial physicians association, has scheduled livestream town halls to answer vaccine questions, with two of the four sessions aimed at people in southern areas with low vaccine uptake.

Lagace-Wiens said the percentage of people who need to get immunized to get Canada close to herd immunity is a moving target because of variants that can spread more quickly.

COVID-19 vaccinations could eventually become as widespread as measles shots, which are delivered in childhood, Lagace-Wiens said, but he added the current pandemic must be dealt with first.

"A bare minimum for our strategy is to get at least up to 80 per cent, 90 per cent but ... our true goal should be 100 per cent immunity."

With files from Julia Peterson in Saskatoon

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