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This area has Ontario's highest vaccination rate. One of the lowest is just 100 km away

While Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District celebrates its sky-high uptake, the City of Cornwall sounds the alarm.

While Leeds, Grenville and Lanark celebrate sky-high uptake, Cornwall sounds alarm

Leeds-Grenville paramedics helped play a big role in the area's remarkable vaccination efforts, taking shots to homes of the most vulnerable. At 91 per cent of its population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit has the highest uptake in Ontario. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

A lone man pickets on the main street of Smiths Falls, Ont., hoisting up a miniature Canadian flag and his homemade sign — a mid-day one-man protest against COVID-19 vaccinations.

Some stare, but no one engages. After all, the area is home to the highest vaccination rate in Ontario.

The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit — which includes communities like Smiths Falls, Brockville and Carleton Place — reports 91 per cent of its eligible population is fully vaccinated, while nearly 97 per cent have one dose.

That's multiple percentage points ahead of the next highest health unit, Thunder Bay.

It's no surprise to Dick Michel. He saw first hand how many people got vaccinated while volunteering at clinics in Athens, a tiny township 25 kilometres from Brockville. He stood in the pouring rain and hot sun, helping park hundreds of cars and manage the flow in and out of the clinics.

Dick Michel led a group of volunteers who parked hundreds of cars at vaccination clinics in Athens, northwest of Brockville. He's excited about the area's record vaccination rate: 'Everybody feels good about it.' (Submitted by Dick Michel)

"It's just a great feeling," he said of the high vaccination rate. "I think it's just pure awareness and the fact that people are willing to get involved and be part of the solution."

The reasons the region's uptake is so high depend on who you ask. Many people who spoke to CBC mentioned how rural the health unit is — more than half of its 174,000 residents live in the country — and that means people look out for others.

Brockville resident Mark Kisielius thinks it's because locals are "civic-minded."

"Everybody's very involved," he said. "And without our vaccinations, we can't be involved."

WATCH | 'People are very civic-minded in this town'  

‘People are very civic-minded in this town’

15 days ago
0:58
Residents of Brockville say the high vaccination rate in the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit stems from the importance of community in the area and concern about the well-being of fellow residents. 0:58
Despite the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit's high vaccination rate, Penny Paterson still has people in her life her aren't vaccinated, including a close relative. 'We’ve agreed not to discuss the topic.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Penny Paterson, who was out for a walk in downtown Brockville, jokes that there are "fewer rednecks."

For paramedic Christopher Scott, it's the area's larger elderly population. Scott's team helped give shots to homebound, vulnerable seniors right in their home. The health unit credits the program with helping boost uptake.

"These people ... are at risk of severe disease and death, and so I think they have taken upon themselves to protect themselves," said Scott.

The health unit reports 99.9 per cent of those 60 years and older are fully vaccinated.

Paramedic Christopher Scott's team helped deliver vaccines to housebound residents. He said they reached almost 1,700 people who would have a hard time accessing the shots otherwise. (Haydn Watters/CBC)
WATCH | Proactive measures might be key to vaccination success in Leeds, Grenville and Lanark health unit 

Proactive measures might be key to vaccination success in Leeds, Grenville and Lanark health unit

15 days ago
1:23
Paramedics Jonathan Sylvester and Christopher Scott say vaccine outreach programs and collaboration between health officials have helped reach at-risk residents who otherwise may have fallen through the cracks. 1:23

Cornwall 'ringing the alarm'

About one hundred kilometres east down Highway 401, however, local health officials are "ringing the alarm."

The City of Cornwall has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Ontario, with just 69 per cent of eligible people fully vaccinated in some neighbourhoods.

That's well below the overall rate for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU), where 84 per cent of eligible people have had both shots. Provincewide, the number is 82 per cent.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, the EOHU's medical officer of health, thinks Cornwall probably has the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in Ontario right now.

Health officials in Cornwall have sounded the alarm over the city's low vaccination rate and high number of cases. Parts of the city have just 69 per cent of those eligible fully vaccinated, well below the health unit's overall rate of 84 per cent. (Stu Mills/CBC)

"We're getting some outbreaks in congregate settings. All of that is, in a negative way, a perfect storm to increase the cases," he said.

The local hospital had admitted 18 patients with COVID-19 as of Friday, compared to only two on the same date in September. Positivity rates in Cornwall are also five times higher than Ontario's average.

"That's a lot of people walking around that could spread the illness," Roumeliotis said.

Cornwall resident Emma Shago has had one shot and said she's waiting for the "perfect moment" to get her second.

Shago thinks the city is divided over vaccinations. She said she was initially on the fence about getting immunized, but got her shot after workers running a vaccination clinic came to her parents' door, saying there were extra doses.

"I'm thinking that the people who aren't quite for it, maybe they have a stronger voice and they are spreading more awareness of what they believe," she said.

Shabbir Dareshani runs Carl’s Convenience in Cornwall. He thinks people may not be getting the vaccine because they worry about getting sick from side effects. (Stu Mills/CBC)

One longtime Cornwall resident spent 15 minutes explaining why vaccines weren't proven and vaccine mandates weren't fair.

"Media has put fear and anxiety into people," she said. "If you don't get vaccinated, you're the culprit. You're the bad guy now because apparently the hospitals are full capacity."

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has said the currently approved mRNA vaccines are "highly efficacious in the short term" against COVID-19. Last month, Moderna released real-world data showing its vaccine was 96 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization — even amid the more transmissible delta variant — and 87 per cent effective at preventing infection.

The woman returned half an hour later asking to have her name kept off the record.

Jenelle Bulloch likens the mindset to music she hears on the radio in Cornwall. When she moved from Toronto, locals warned her that top-40 radio is five years behind the times.

Jenelle Bulloch has two kids and one on the way. She moved to Cornwall from Toronto almost three years ago. On vaccinations, she thinks some people need to spend time 'thinking and processing.' (Stu Mills/CBC)

It's helped her understand new ideas aren't adopted overnight.

"You have to first be informed ... and then you have to go through a process of thinking about it," she said. "There's probably a big population of people who do need to spend that time thinking."

'We're just going to keep on going'

Dr. Jeff Kwong, a scientist with the Institute for Clinical Evaluation Sciences, uses the first three letters of Ontario postal codes to get a better sense of places where vaccination rates are high and low. 

He says discrepancies between communities are common, with numbers even ranging wildly from one neighbourhood to another.

"I think there are truly areas where there may be people who have certain attitudes towards the COVID vaccine compared to other areas," said Kwong. "Maybe they feel like COVID is not such a big deal. They don't know anyone that's gotten the disease."

Dr. Paula Stewart, medical officer for the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit, says there's only one person in her life who isn't vaccinated: her 11-year-old granddaughter, who turns 12 in January. 'I told her that nanny had a Pfizer vaccine with her name on it.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

With the Delta variant, vaccine uptake should be as close to 100 per cent as possible, Kwong said.

Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit is nearly there.

"We're just going to keep on going," said Dr. Paula Stewart, its medical officer. "Ninety-five [per cent] is the target. And then once we reach that, probably go to 98 ... we will make it there!"

WATCH | Cornwall has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Ontario. Residents tell us why 

Cornwall has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Ontario. Residents tell us why

15 days ago
3:04
Residents of Cornwall, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Ontario, say many in their community are hesitant because of concerns about side effects and influence from right-wing politicians. 3:04

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

With files from Stu Mills

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