Sask. should battle vaccine hesitancy with intervention, not rely on personal responsibility: critics

Saskatchewan's health minister has framed vaccines as a personal choice, but doctors say the issue of vaccine hesitancy should be framed and treated as a public health concern that requires intervention.

Doctor warns of potential autumn surge among unvaccinated

Saskatchewan Minister of Health Paul Merriman speaks with the media on July 27, 2021 in Saskatoon. (CBC News)

Saskatchewan's health minister has framed vaccination uptake as a personal choice, but critics say vaccine hesitancy should actually be treated as a public health concern that requires government intervention.

"Everybody in Saskatchewan should have access to a vaccine right now. If they choose not to get that, that's their choice," Paul Merriman said Tuesday when asked about rising COVID-19 cases and stalling vaccine uptake.

Viewing low-vaccine uptake as a personal choice rather than a public health concern is problematic, said Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease specialist in Regina.

Wong said the majority of unvaccinated people could likely be convinced to get the shot if the government prioritizes putting in the work. 

"A lot of people still have very legitimate questions, and are getting information from lots of different sources that are conflicting. Like, should I get it? Is this safe? Is this efficacious versus not?" He said. "I think the responsibility is on the system to help move all of those people forward, and that potentially includes policy measures." 

Dr. Alexander Wong, infectious diseases doctor at Regina General Hospital, said it's going to be hard work to get the unvaccinated vaccinated, but that it's necessary. (Submitted by Alexander Wong/Saskatchewan Health Authority)

Wong said it's going to be a tough slog moving vaccine-hesitant people toward the shot, but that it needs to be done. He said education, outreach and targeted community support should be prioritized. 

"These are just ways that we can help push people, who are hesitant and who might potentially be indifferent, toward making what is the right choice," he said. "Whether the government is going to move toward that or not remains to be seen."

Wong cautioned about a potential variant surge among the unvaccinated come autumn. The province reports that 74 per cent of eligible people have received their first dose and 63 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

He pointed to the devastating variant outbreak that shut down Regina in the springtime. The capital city's hospitals were overwhelmed.

"Leaving it all to personal responsibility and individual decision making is the same sort of approach that we took in March," Wong said. "That certainly didn't really do well for us at that point in time, so hopefully we're not going to see a repeat of that."

The bulk of Saskatchewan's new cases are in the three far north regions. Those regions have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in Canada. As of Wednesday, there were 117 cases in the far northwest, 24 in the far north central and 49 in the far north east. All regions in the south of Saskatchewan — excluding Regina — have 10 or fewer known cases. 

Earlier this week, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) said the Saskatchewan government and the RCMP need to do more to help contain the spread of the virus.  It said COVID-19 is spreading quickly in absence of public health restrictions. 

Merriman said restrictions aren't being considered because the outbreaks are "localized." He said the government is working with northern communities to ensure there is access to vaccines and also make sure "there's a good understanding of the public health orders that were in place and just general practices within COVID." 

On Wednesday, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili, who is also a doctor, criticized the health minister for blaming individuals instead of taking action to stop the spread. 

"He's spinning this personal choice message when he knows that it's the communities that have had the least access, the least information, that have long standing barriers to accessing health care, where the rates are lowest." 

Meili said the government should be relying on incentives and vaccine requirements for event attendance to boost rates. 

"But [Merriman] doesn't want to take any responsibility. He wants to shift the blame, point the finger at the people who are suffering instead of recognizing that he's failed us."

with files from The Afternoon Edition, Matt Garand and Alexander Quon


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