Pharmacists say vaccine access, hesitancy driving slow rural Alberta uptake

Some rural pharmacists say they're surprised vaccine uptake has been low in some rural areas in Alberta, as they see continued demand for second doses.

15 Alberta regions where only 20 to 40 per cent of population have had first dose

St. Paul-based pharmacist Ahmed Aboelsaoud said vaccine demand has been high for both first and second doses at his pharmacy. (Travis McEwan/CBC News)

Vaccine hesitancy and access are two reasons behind Alberta's growing rural and urban divide in COVID-19 vaccine uptake, but no single reason can explain the issue, some pharmacists say.

Pharmacist Ahmed Aboelsaoud says he thought the St. Paul region, where he owns and operates Catalyst Pharmacy, was doing well with vaccine uptake based on demand from customers. 

But as of Wednesday afternoon, the area is one of 15 local geographic regions in the province where only 20 to 40 per cent of the eligible population has had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Alberta Health vaccination data covering 132 regions.

In most Calgary and Edmonton regions, upwards of 70 per cent of those 12 and older had at least one dose. 

"Since we started the vaccination in mid-April, we had a constant flow of people asking and booking appointments for getting their first or even second shot," Aboelsaoud said.

"It was very surprising that we are one of the lowest at 20 to 40 per cent."

He said there were some delays at the beginning of the vaccine rollout, with only two regional pharmacies offering vaccines at first. When the province stopped offering AstraZeneca for first doses, his pharmacy was without vaccine for about two weeks.

But things have changed since mid-May and the pharmacy now receives a steady supply of vaccine, Aboelsaoud said. 

"Hopefully this will lead to a pick up of the percentage in the coming few weeks."

Lower vaccine uptake

Experts have said lower uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in some rural Alberta communities is likely the result of several factors, not just vaccine hesitancy.

Access to vaccines and proximity to local clinics or pharmacies has been cited as a barrier in remote communities. Data shows that different levels of education could also be contributing to vaccination rates. 

Pharmacist Patrick Kinshella, who co-owns the Valley Drug Mart in Peace River, says he is unsure what's driving lower vaccine uptake in his community. In the Peace River region, about 42 per cent of the eligible population has had their first shot. 

But he says vaccine hesitancy is part of the problem. 

"You've got some people that want it. They want to move ahead," Kinshella said.

"You've got another group that are dead-set against the vaccine. And you've got another group that's kind of indifferent about the vaccine."

Pharmacists in rural Alberta says there are several reasons behind lower vaccine uptake in their communities. (Leah Hennel/AHS)

In people who are indifferent about the vaccine, the pharmacist sees an opportunity for conversation.

"If you can get somebody that's hesitant about it to do it, then I think it is a win," he said.

Alberta is just shy of the 70-per-cent first-dose threshold it set to trigger the last stage of its reopening plan, when most health restrictions are set to be lifted. As of Wednesday, about 23 per cent of Albertans 12 and older were fully vaccinated with two doses. 

First dose uptake in Alberta is at its lowest point since February, when supply shortages limited shots to select healthcare workers and elderly populations. 

The provincial government recently introduced a $3-million vaccine lottery and additional travel prizes as incentives for people to get their COVID-19 vaccines. 

While critics have expressed doubt in the plan, Aboelsaoud says he hopes it will prove to be the deciding factor for some who had otherwise been complacent about rolling their sleeve. 

"I hope that this will encourage people to get vaccinated more."

With files from Emily Senger and Travis McEwan