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Rural mayors battle fourth wave, vaccine hesitancy

Misinformation, mistrust in government faulted for low rural vaccination rates.
2209 rural mayors file CC
Mayors are battling a fourth wave of COVID-19 that has made its way to rural Alberta. Misinformation, complacency and independent values are some of the reason vaccination rates are low in rural areas.

Rural Alberta is getting battered by the fourth wave as COVID-19 numbers surge partly due to low vaccination rates in many regions across the province.

In the county of Slave Lake, only 50.5 per cent of the eligible population is immunized, with just one dose, and 43.1 per cent of the population has both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Reeve of Lesser Slave Lake River Murray Kerik said in rural areas there is a battle against complacency.

“Some of the guys, it's not that they have anything against it, but they've just never had a real reason to go do it. And they're all working in the oil field or logging industry or they’re busy. And they've never really had enough incentive to go,” Kerik said.

The reeve said in his region access is not a problem. The vaccine is readily available in many areas in the community.

In the Slave Lake region, Kerik said they weren’t as impacted by the previous three waves

“This is the first time we've had one that was big enough to cause concern,” Kerik said.

Along with battling complacency, Kerik said many residents believe in vaccine myths or misinformation and don't want to get a shot because of it.

In the Town of Slave Lake, Mayor Tyler Warman said the community is experiencing the toughest COVID-19 numbers since the pandemic began.

“I think it's the most difficult time that we've experienced, so we've been quite fortunate throughout that our COVID numbers remain quite low,” Warman said.

The community was isolated during the first three waves, as its about one hour from other communities, which helped them keep numbers low early in the pandemic.

When the province opened for summer, community members, like everyone else in Alberta, travelled across the province to visit friends and family. Many left the country and others went to town to shop. The town also hosted events where there were public gatherings.

“We went from being really stuck in place during COVID-19 with the previous waves to a lot more relaxation and people taking advantage of it,” Warman said.

With the movement and loosened restrictions combined with the Delta variant, Warman said numbers have risen as a result.

“We're dealing with something that's way more aggressive that spreads faster that is way more contagious and now our numbers have just spiked,” Warman said.

But rural residents may be getting tired of all the restrictions.

“I think COVID-19 fatigue is very high in rural Alberta, not saying it's not in urban, but I definitely think there are different mentalities in urban and rural right now on how to deal with COVID,” Warman said.

The community is divided, Warman said, between residents who are very COVID-19 conscious and those who don’t have a lot of trust or faith in what the government is doing right now.

Many residents no longer buy into the restrictions and younger Albertans feel like they have less risk and may not immediately want to get vaccinated.

“We only recently experienced our second death in Slave Lake last week. We haven’t had a bunch of severe cases,” Warman said.

But as the fourth wave comes, more people are seeing COVID-19 as a reality in the community, as their friends and neighbours are getting sick with the virus. Hospitals across the province are filling up, including those in rural communities, and Warman said he is worried that Albertans are going to lose their ability to access care if they get sick or in an accident.

Warman said he doesn’t believe the situation in his community is unique, and many rural communities are facing similar battles to fight the virus.

Four hours south of Slave Lake, the mayor of Rimbey, Rick Pankiw, is fighting the same battle against the fourth wave of the virus.

In Rimbey, for all ages, 50.3 per cent have had one dose, and for everyone who is eligible, 58.1 per cent have had their first dose. In the community there are 52.2 per cent of eligible residents who have received two doses, and 45.2 per cent of the total residents in the community have received the second shot.

Pankiw said there is a lot of vaccine hesitancy in the region, and he respects the decision they have made to not get vaccinated, but said the science is clear that vaccines are safe and effective.

“I believe vaccinations are the only way out of this. I am not I'm not afraid to say it,” Pankiw said

The mayor said it is important for residents to get vaccinated to keep numbers down.

In neighbouring Ponoka County, Reeve Paul McLauchlin, who is also the president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said he is seeing a lot of vaccine misinformation being passed through social media that is driving the hesitancy in the region.

In Ponoka County, 54.9 per cent of residents have their first dose, while 48.9 per cent of all ages have two doses.

McLauchlin said he is giving grace and compassion to those who are unvaccinated because they are making choices based off their entrenched belief systems, but he is concerned about misinformation. 

"What really worries me is ultimately this misinformation is going to lead to people getting sick and possibly people passing away," McLauchlin said. 

McLauchlin said during the first three waves he didn't know too many people who were personally impacted by COVID-19 infections, but this wave has made the virus personal for many living in rural Alberta. 

But for Kerik, he said he feels powerless in changing the minds of those in his community. 

"There's really nothing you can do. I just hope that people will smarten up and take the right steps to protect their neighbours and families. That's about all we can do," Kerik said. 

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Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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