New survey provides hard data on relationship between masking and vaccination in Saskatchewan

New data shows that the those likely to mask are more likely to get vaccinated. Researchers say one encourages the other.

Researcher says data should have province rethinking COVID-19 strategy

People walk in downtown Ottawa on Aug. 9, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People walk in downtown Ottawa on Aug. 9, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brian Morris/CBC)

A new survey from researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina has given us hard data on the relationship between masking and COVID-19 vaccination in Saskatchewan.

The survey of more 3,500 people conducted by the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit (SPHERU) has found that there is a clear correlation between those who intend to wear masks and those wanting to get vaccinated.

People who were willing to take protective action such as limiting their social circle were more likely to consistently wear masks and accept vaccines.

This map shows how likely respondents were to wear masks and get vaccinated in each region. (Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit)

The data shows that the efforts go hand-in-hand. One encourages the other. 

But the opposite is also true.

The survey found those who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are, for the most part, the same people who choose not to wear masks in public indoor places when social distancing is not possible. 

This map shows how likely respondents were to refuse to wear masks and choose not to get vaccinated in each region. (Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit)

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan and one of the researchers with SPHERU.

He said the results of the survey, which was conducted between Jan. 1 and May 3, 2021, finally gives policy makers and health workers hard data. 

"Data always is powerful because it confirms rather than kind of us having to rely on just anecdotes," Muhajarine said in an interview this week. 

Although the data is from May, Muhajarine said it still remains relevant and it may have become more important in the weeks since the province lifted COVID-19 restrictions. 

READ| Results of the SPHERU Survey

The relationship found in the data may also provide a new direction for health officials in the province as they look to boost vaccination efforts in the province. 

Saskatchewan lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on July 11. 

In the nearly a month since, Saskatchewan has a seen a rise in cases that Muhajarine attributes to the rise of the delta variant, which is far more virulent than the standard COVID-19 virus. 

While case numbers have risen, there has been no significant increase in the number of people receiving their first dose in the same time period.

Nazeem Muhajarine is an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan. (Submitted by University of Saskatchewan)

The number of eligible people in the province receiving their second dose in the past month has jumped by 11 per cent, but the increase in the number of first doses has only been three percentage points. 

"It makes a lot of good policy sense to rethink of our strategy about responding to this delta rise rise in cases. We may want to think about reintroducing public health measures," Muhajarine said. 

Reimplementing health restrictions, such as mandatory masking in indoor settings, sends a message to people who are vaccine hesitant that COVID-19 is still something serious, he said. 

It may even encourage more people to get vaccinated. 

By mapping the data collected in the survey, the team at SPHERU has also been able to provide a better picture of where in Saskatchewan groups of vaccine hesitant individuals are. 

The largest pockets are in southwestern and southeastern parts of the province. 

Although targeted efforts to increase vaccinations are ongoing — with the province deciding to bring vaccination clinics to where individuals work, live and congregate — Muhajarine said the data may show officials another way of targeting their efforts.

"Rather than kind of spreading our messaging [in an] untargeted, unfocused way in terms of place, we can do it in a very focused way and maybe we go to places where people are not getting, in the numbers we want to see them get, vaccines and not masking," Muhajarine said. 

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Province to continue targeted efforts

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health did not directly respond to question on whether it is considering reintroducing masking mandates in response to the survey's findings. 

Instead, a spokesperson for the department said it will continue its efforts to focus on populations who are partially vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated. 

"This provides residents with vaccines in the most convenient manner and health officials can answer any questions people may have which may be leading to their hesitancy," wrote Jennifer Graham in a statement. 

The statement said there will continue to be a subsection of the population that will not get vaccinated "regardless of the risk they are taking in declining to get vaccinated."

That risk includes spreading COVID-19 to others as well as the possibility of hospitalization or even death, the province said.

"The majority of Saskatchewan residents have taken steps to protect themselves, their families and their communities. For others who have not yet taken those steps, the province will continue to offer vaccinations, targeting those areas where there is the greatest potential uptake," the statement concluded. 

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