Saskatoon

Mayors of Lloydminster, La Loche address low vaccine uptake

Mayors in Saskatchewan regions where double-dose COVID-19 vaccine uptake is comparatively low are citing a variety of factors, including young populations waiting for child doses and the belief among some that the pandemic doesn't exist.

'Some people felt COVID didn't exist,' Lloydminster mayor says

Gerald Aalbers is the mayor of the Albert-Saskatchewan border town of Lloydminster. (François Joly/CBC News)

Mayors in Saskatchewan regions where double-dose COVID-19 vaccine uptake is comparatively low are citing a variety of factors, including young populations waiting for child doses and the belief among some that COVID doesn't exist.

Last week, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, unveiled the provincial government's most detailed breakdown yet of how many people are partially or fully vaccinated in different parts of the province.

The Nov. 16 map divided Saskatchewan into 32 regions, each marked with a different colour indicating the level of two-dose vaccine uptake among its eligible residents. 

Some smaller sub-regions — including far northwest 1, which includes the regional hub of La Loche, and northwest 2, which includes the Alberta-Saskatchewan border city of Lloydminster — appeared to be partially in the red zone, suggesting fewer than half of the eligible people in those areas had received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.   

The Ministry of Health released this map showing regional differences in double-dose COVID-19 vaccine uptake last week. (Saskatchewan Ministry of Health)

Georgina Jolibois, the mayor of La Loche, said leaders in the village have been committed to promoting vaccines from the outset, including getting the shots themselves.

"I have taken the first, second and booster shot, and the flu shot as well," Jolibois said Monday.

While more than 60 per cent of La Loche residents have one dose, "we still have a long way to go" for second doses, she said. 

Demographics play a role, she said. Across the province, some of Saskatchewan's younger age groups have lagged behind in getting their does.

La Loche has a high proportion of residents aged 24 and under, Jolibois said. That includes children aged 5 to 11, an age group for whom vaccines will become available for the first time later this week.

For part of this past summer, vaccines for youth aged 12 to 17 were not available in the community, prompting some to travel to Saskatoon to get their shots, she said. 

Other residents, including single parents, need help with transportation, "especially now with winter," Jolibois said. 

Good translation services are also key, as many residents in La Loche speak the traditional Dene language, she said.

Jolibois accompanied a physician going door to door and translated for her. 

"That should be done more," she said of door-to-door visits.  

In a recently published study, researchers at the University of Saskatchewan found that Indigenous people tend to be less trusting of the health-care system and government initiatives due to generations of traumatic experiences with the medical system. 

Jolibois said the provincial government's move to restrict access to and from the north early in the pandemic, when La Loche and area experienced one of Saskatchewan's first COVID-19 outbreaks, resulted in some people not being able to access health care.

"The restrictions put so many negative connotations and the negative experiences that many residents had was really uncomfortable," she said.

Georgina Jolibois is the mayor of the northern village of La Loche. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

'I often refer people to their doctor'

While Jolibois said the province provides La Loche weekly COVID-19 statistics on the community, Lloydminster mayor Gerald Aalbers said his city only knows what is shared publicly every day on the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 dashboard.

That page shares daily updates on the total number of new and active COVID-19 cases in northwest 2, a sub-region that includes Lloydminster and 12 other communities. The page's breakdown of vaccinations is even more broad, accounting only for the cumulative total of doses administered in the entire northwest region. 

The city would like case and vaccine data specific to its residents, Aalbers said. 

"It certainly would help in the communications to the public," he said. "There would be a lot of work, but I think it would be worthwhile if people knew where they stood as a community." 

Aalbers said a fair number of people in the city have been exposed to COVID-19 "and made it through."

"I think there's some of that question, 'How many people have had COVID?' Those numbers would be very important for people to know from that perspective."

Aalbers said he's heard residents cite several reasons for not getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Some people felt that COVID didn't exist," he said. "Others felt that it was a personal choice that they had to make.… Because of the number of people that have had COVID, they may have chosen to say, 'Listen, I've got natural immunity.'"

Still others have medical concerns they're discussing with their doctors, he added.

Navigating all these perspectives has been challenging as mayor, Aalbers said. He's opted for a middle ground, he said. 

"I often refer people to their doctor because they are the medical professional. I'm not a medical professional."

Aalbers declined to confirm his own COVID-19 vaccination status, saying he would prefer to keep that information private.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa from Cornwall, Ontario

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

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