Saskatchewan

Hesitancy a factor in Sask. Phase 1 health-care worker vaccine uptake, says doctor

More health-care workers are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in Saskatchewan, due to thousands of doses left over from Phase 1 health-care workers. A doctor and union in the province say that vaccine hesitancy could have played a role in the uptake — and that health-care workers aren’t immune to it.

72% of Phase 1 health-care workers have now received COVID-19 shots

More health-care workers are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in Saskatchewan due to thousands of doses left over from Phase 1 health-care workers. (Brendan McDermind/Reuters)

After months of waiting her turn for a COVID-19 vaccine, Trenna Bailey is breathing a sigh of relief. 

Not being considered a Phase 1, or priority, health-care worker, the licensed practical nurse in Tisdale, Sask., said she got lucky when she received the call that leftover doses were available for nursing staff at the town's hospital last month.

"I dropped everything to go get the shot," Bailey said, noting she also has severe asthma. "It's a big load off your shoulders to know that [contracting COVID-19] hopefully won't be a problem for me now."

But before that, Bailey called it "disheartening" at times to watch eligible colleagues across Saskatchewan turn down their chance to be vaccinated, knowing she couldn't.

"They can do what they want — this is a free country — but it is frustrating," she said. "Like, [you] don't wear the masks just to protect yourself, you wear it to protect everybody around you. So I think, like any vaccine, you should get it to protect everyone — not just yourself."

Trenna Bailey, a licensed practical nurse of 20 years from Tisdale, Sask., received her COVID-19 vaccine in mid-March, thanks to leftover doses at the town’s hospital. (Submitted by Trenna Bailey)

Last week, the province released statistics showing 68 per cent (27,348 out of 40,500) of Phase 1 health-care workers chose to get their COVID-19 shots, leaving 32 per cent without immunizations. As of Monday, the percentage had jumped to 72 per cent of all Phase 1 health-care workers. 

The leftover thousands of first doses are now set aside for some remaining health-care workers who weren't initially prioritized.

"There are several reasons why someone may not yet be vaccinated, including an existing medical condition, if they have tested positive for COVID within the last 90 days, and vaccine hesitancy," the Ministry of Health wrote in an emailed statement, adding that vaccines are not mandatory for any Saskatchewan resident.

Trenna Bailey, a licensed practical nurse in Tisdale, Sask., said she's grateful she and most of her fellow nurses had the opportunity to be vaccinated, despite not being prioritized in Phase 1 of the province's rollout plan. (Submitted by Trenna Bailey)

Tracey Sauer — chair of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU) health providers bargaining committee, which represents health-care workers in central and northern Saskatchewan — also said there were several reasons for the leftover doses.

For some Phase 1 rural long-term care workers, it was too difficult to accommodate travel or child care to get their shots. However, she added, vaccine hesitancy also played a role.

"Let's face it — it's social media," Sauer said. "We've never had a pandemic before, but now because we are inundated all the time with all this stuff, they don't know what to believe." 

Health-care workers not immune to misinfo

Dr. Hassan Masri, a Saskatoon intensive care physician, agrees that when it comes to vaccines, health-care workers aren't immune to misinformation.

"Just because they happen to work in a hospital does not mean they don't have the same human emotions and feelings and questions that a regular person may have," he said, adding online gossip and fake news feed into that.

Masri said the uptake numbers are "a decent percentage."

Of those who chose not to get their jab, he estimates roughly one-third of them will never get vaccinated, and the remaining roughly two-thirds are "late adopters" who want to see others take it first.

"[Late adopters] believe in the vaccine generally. They think it's safe, they think it's effective — but they have some concerns maybe about the speed of the production of the vaccine, or the age group, or some stories they've heard from people," he explained, noting they often benefit most from education and good communication.

Masri said offering vaccine-related facts to people through medical studies and sharing success stories in other countries helps encourage those who are still debating whether to get their shot.

"I find that a lot of people will change their mind when they're addressed with these things, rather than shaming them or criticizing them for their choice," he added.

Anti-vaccine-hesitancy campaign

The Saskatchewan Medical Association and the Saskatchewan College of Family Physicians joined other physician and health-care groups across the province to launch a campaign on Monday, promoting COVID-19 vaccinations and tackling issues around vaccine hesitancy.

"We assure you any vaccine you're offered is safe. Common side effects are uncontrollable giddiness and the release of happy tears," reads a campaign letter signed by front-line health-care workers.

"It doesn't matter how exhausted we all are, whether you're young, healthy — COVID. DOES. NOT. CARE. The only way to STOP it is to roll up your sleeve and get your vaccine."

CBC News reached out to both the Saskatchewan government and health authority twice to see how they were combating fears and vaccine hesitancy in the province, but received no response by the time of publication.

In an earlier statement, the Ministry of Health said, "All the vaccines are safe and effective, and we strongly encourage all Saskatchewan residents to get vaccinated when eligible."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessie Anton

Journalist

Jessie Anton is a Regina-based journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She began sharing stories from across the province on television, radio and online in 2016, after getting her start in the rural weekly newspaper world. Email her at jessie.anton@cbc.ca.

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