Despite making up just over a third of the population (including kids under 12), unvaccinated — or diagnosed within two weeks from the first immunization date — people made up almost 85 per cent of cases, 85 per cent of hospitalized cases and 77 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the province since Jan. 1, 2021.
Unvaccinated Albertans were more than 12 times as likely to die from COVID-19 over the last four months than fully vaccinated Albertans. Real world vaccine data indicates that two doses of the approved vaccines are 90 per cent effective at preventing infection.
Since the beginning of 2021, less than one per cent of fully vaccinated Albertans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 14 days after the second immunization date. Vaccines work. Yet not everyone in the province seems convinced.
Why won’t people in Alberta get vaccinated?
For one answer as to why Albertans won’t get vaccinated, we can look to the government and lack of provincial leadership in fighting COVID-19. Despite a strong initial response in March 2020, Alberta has fallen behind other provinces in its implementation of social distancing measures.
This culminated with the provincial government’s “Open for Summer” plan, which removed most COVID-19 restrictions and left many residents with the impression that the pandemic was over just in time for the Calgary Stampede.
The government justified these moves, in part, by promoting personal responsibility and civic freedoms above social responsibility and government restrictions. Opposition to the latter has been driven by misinformation campaigns, supported by traditional and social media posts from Canada, the United States and abroad.
If we want to understand the impact of the government’s approach and the influence of misinformation, we need to talk to the unvaccinated. This is what our team did in the September 2021 Viewpoint Alberta Survey.
As part of the Common Ground initiative at the University of Alberta, our team has been fielding surveys with thousands of Albertans for the past two years. Our most recent survey asked 1,204 Alberta residents about their vaccination status and their views on COVID-19 vaccines and policies that support vaccinations.
Most respondents (86 per cent) were vaccinated, but we found certain groups were less likely to be vaccinated than others. Two factors stood out — economic hardship and political affiliation.
People who earn less than $40,000 per year, are less able to pay monthly expenses and do not have savings to cover emergency expenses are less likely to be vaccinated than higher earners and people in more stable financial situations.
Vaccine hesitancy also varied among Albertans with different political views. The lowest vaccination rates were present among respondents who reported that they would vote for the Wildrose Independence Party if a provincial election were held today. Only 61 per cent of these respondents were vaccinated.
More broadly, placement on the political spectrum was also related to vaccination rates. Only 71 per cent of people who identified towards the far right end of the spectrum were vaccinated compared to 98 per cent of people on the far left.
Our data show that unvaccinated respondents were primarily concerned about the safety of the vaccines. Approximately 62 per cent of unvaccinated respondents were worried about the vaccine’s side effects and 45 per cent believed that the vaccine was unsafe. Other respondents also cited a lack of trust in government and the pharmaceutical industry.
What should governments and individuals do now?
Our research shows that financial insecurity and right-wing beliefs are leading drivers of vaccine hesitancy in Alberta. And these factors don’t lend themselves to easy solutions — this is particularly true when we consider the deep unpopularity of the United Conservative Party government.
Even if the provincial government was motivated to increase vaccination rates through more direct government intervention, the measures may not succeed given conservatives’ lack of faith in the province, the premier and the cabinet.
Take, for instance, the Alberta government’s two primary interventions to increase vaccination rates this summer. First, the government introduced a series of financial incentives — a million-dollar lottery and $100 gift card program — to encourage Albertans to get the shot. Neither of these initiatives had a noticeable effect on vaccination rates.
Another — the government’s “restriction exemption” program — proved more effective by imposing restrictions on certain non-essential businesses who chose not to enforce a vaccine passport system.
In general, we find that Albertans were much more supportive of the restriction-exemption program than they were of the financial incentives. This suggests the government’s use of “carrots,” while aligning with their conservative approach, was not nearly as popular or effective as one based on government restrictions.
More importantly, it creates opportunity for the provincial government to extend and enhance their restriction-exemption approach to include more businesses and more stringent guidelines associated with conventional vaccine passport systems.
Of the more than 56 million doses administered in Canada, 0.034 per cent of all doses have resulted in an adverse event. If you are someone who has not yet been vaccinated, now is the time.
Do you have a question about COVID-19 vaccines? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and vaccine experts will answer questions in upcoming articles.