The Majority of Canada Is Vaccinated. But What to Do About the Rest?

At least 70 percent of Canadians have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But that is likely not enough for herd immunity.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
July 15, 2021, 4:59pm
A woman wearing a face mask receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination site in Toronto, Canada, on June 27, 2021.
A woman wearing a face mask receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination site in Toronto, Canada, on June 27, 2021. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images)

After Canadians raced for weeks to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the pace of first doses in Canada is finally slowing down. And while that’s partially good news—a large majority of people have been jabbed—it also puts the spotlight on those Canadians who don’t feel an urgent pull to get vaccinated, subsequently threatening the likelihood of achieving herd immunity.

Figuring out how to get those folks vaccinated is complicated.

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At least 70 percent of Canadians have received at least one dose of a two-dose vaccine, and nearly half are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. (Those numbers skew even higher for eligible Canadians as kids under 12 are not allowed to be vaccinated currently.) That’s good news, proven by the dwindling number of COVID-19 infections in the country. Alberta, for example, North America’s COVID hotspot in April, had only 569 active cases as of Thursday.

“Canada, really, we’re doing quite well—extraordinarily well—for first and second dose coverage,” said Dr. Katrina Plamondon, University of British Columbia Okanagan’s nursing school professor and global health specialist.

The problem is that reaching herd immunity—effectively stamping out the virus—likely requires even more people to get vaccinated. Experts estimate that a population needs to be anywhere from 85 to 90 percent fully vaccinated before herd immunity is reached. In Malta, an impressive 85 percent of people are vaccinated, and yet, the virus is still spreading

Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is the main way for everyone to climb out of the pandemic. They prevent people from catching and spreading the virus, and “breakthrough infections,” or rare infections caught by a fully vaccinated person, tend to be significantly less severe. (Breakthrough cases only account for 0.5 percent of all cases in Canada.)

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“In general, Canadians are a little more motivated to get vaccinated, but eventually we reach a point where we deal with a small portion of people who don't want it or aren't motivated,”  said Dr. Stephen Hoption Cann, a University of British Columbia epidemiologist.

Vaccination rates for other illnesses suggest Canadians skew in favour of vaccines. A 2017 Statistics Canada survey found that 90.2 percent were protected against measles and 89.9 percent against mumps. Flu vaccine uptake has hovered around 40 percent, but that’s because the shot is largely marketed to older people. Uptake climbs to 70 percent for people over 65. On the flip side, only about two to three percent of Canadians are staunchly anti-vaxx. 

Improving vaccine accessibility

For many, getting a vaccine may be as simple as getting easier access to a site that offers jabs like a pop-up or pharmacy. Taking time off work or travelling to get a dose aren’t easy options for all workers, especially those who work long hours, shift work, or don’t have access to a vehicle. 

“There are some people who have not been vaccinated because they're waiting for legitimate health reasons. There are people waiting because of worries about safety and wanting to see more robust data,” Plamondon said. “Then, there’s another group—people who have difficulty accessing it for various reasons.”

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Global News reported how grassroots efforts have pooled together time and manpower to drive people to vaccination hubs. Some groups even cold-called businesses and encouraged them to let their often precariously employed workers take time to get jabbed.

Plamondon said community-led campaigns are the most effective—policy needs to engage with and reflect the needs of Canadians who struggle to access vaccines. 

Extending clinic hours beyond the regular 9 to 5, producing vaccine-related information in a number of languages, and making it as easy as possible for people who don't have internet access to schedule appointments offline are all strategies that improve accessibility.

Offering incentives 

Others require more convincing. According to Hoption Cann, tackling vaccine hesitancy varies from province to province, but offering incentives can help. All over the U.S. as well as in Alberta and Mantioba, vaccine lotteries were implemented to encourage people to get vaccinated. One dispensary is even offering a year's supply of weed for people who get jabbed. In Oregon, vaccinated students are eligible for one of five $100,000 college scholarships.

“It’s good to have those incentives because a lot of countries have opened up without adequate vaccination levels and their numbers have gone up,” the epidemiologist said. 

More extreme incentives include vaccine passports.

Many countries, including France, Denmark, and Israel, have introduced vaccine passports that give people who are fully protected from COVID more freedoms, such as going out to eat at a restaurant or attend a show.  

Mandatory vaccinations

France has also declared that it’s mandatory for health workers to get vaccinated. “If they don’t get vaccinated then there are penalties for non-compliance,” Hoption Cann said. 

In Canada, the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick have legislation in place that makes it mandatory for parents to get kids vaccinated, but Hoption Cann said those provinces don’t have higher vaccination rates than others. As a result, mandatory vaccines aren’t necessarily the best way to get people jabbed. “Generally, it is best to limit this to cases where vaccination rates are low,” he said. 

Combatting false information, ideology

False information about vaccines swirling around social media has also made it more difficult to convince some people that vaccines are safe and effective, despite the fact that the vaccines approved in Canada and the U.S. have been rigorously vetted, experts have repeatedly warned.

People who are vaccine hesitant, often thanks to false information, need our patience, Plamondon said.

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“They need access to very good information and need opportunities to ask questions without judgement,” she said. “They also need a welcoming and extremely informed person to answer their questions and to explore their worries with them.”

Politics represent yet another divide. 

Surveys show conservatives are also less likely to get vaccinated. VICE World News previously reported how in right-leaning provinces and states conservatives and white evangelical men are more vaccine hesitant. To combat that, they need to see their leaders or elected representatives tout the benefits of vaccines. (The U.S. is currently seeing outbreaks of the delta variant, mostly in red states.) 

“It’s important for leaders in those right-leaning groups to push the importance of vaccination,” Hoption Cann said. “They’re kind of the role models.”

Role models and leaders help other groups, too, he added. 

Young people are getting vaccinated at a slower rate, a trend that’s also threatening herd immunity. Popstar Olivia Rodrigo went to the White House on Wednesday and used her influence to encourage young people to get vaccinated. 

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“People are burnt out and young people bore a lot of anger during the pandemic, lots of blaming young people for spreading the virus… I think that was really unhelpful,” Plamondon said. “Are we understanding their living and working conditions in a way that works for them? Are we meeting them where they're at? I suspect we’re not.”

That’s why, again, it’s important to assess their needs and offer age appropriate solutions—and incentives that help them “understand the relationship between their lives and the vaccine.” 

“Even letting them know that nightlife is safer with vaccines,” Plamondon said.

Accepting some people won’t get vaccinated

No matter what, a small group of people won’t get vaccinated.

“There is a small portion of people who are anti-vaxx,” Plamondon said. “That group, in my experience, is not going to be a convincible group because it is coming from a sense of such deep conspiracy and distrust.”

That doesn’t mean we can’t hit the 85 percent or 90 percent threshold, but shame and fear-based arguments won’t help us get there, Plamondon said.

“It worries me sometimes about how divisive the dialogue has gotten and I worry about the erosion of trust in science,” she said. “But to shame and blame never works; fear-based education has always been shown to fail.

“Instead, we need to try and understand people and meet them where they’re at”—whether they’re scared of the vaccine or want to get jabbed but can’t access it.

Global needs to get vaccinated

Finally, there’s the global need for Canadians to get vaccinated—the faster we protect ourselves from COVID, the faster the federal government will share vaccines with poorer countries. According to Our World in Data, a quarter of the world’s population has received at least one dose, but only 1 percent of people in low-income countries have.

Since the start of the pandemic, experts have said that the pandemic isn’t over until it's over everywhere. Otherwise, the threat of COVID variants that are resistant to vaccines put everyone, even the most vaccinated countries, at risk. 

“If we don't share vaccine doses, everything we achieved at home could be compromised,” Plamondon said.  

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