EDMONTON — As the number of Albertans who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine continues to grow, so too does the discrepancy of that number between Alberta’s more rural North Zone and the rest of the province.
Government of Alberta data shows, as of May 12, 28.9 per cent of the population in the province’s North Zone had received at least one dose, that’s compared to 40.6 per cent in the Edmonton Zone, and between 34.6 per cent and 38.9 per cent in the other three zones.
Rural communities rely heavily on local pharmacies to dole out their vaccine supply, and while the reason for the lower percentage of vaccinated people in Alberta’s North Zone is unclear, some small town pharmacists CTV News Edmonton spoke to suggest inconsistent supply and vaccine hesitancy are two likely factors.
Ryan MacMillan has been giving out Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in his Drayton Valley, Alta., pharmacy as often as he can – but with the store’s supply coming in every Wednesday, there are only three days a week when that’s possible.
“I have to use those up in the next two days or else I’m working weekends,” the pharmacist said.
The Pfizer vaccine has a fridge-life of 120 hours, or five days, once it’s been delivered.
“If I could get it on Mondays, that’d be a lot better because then I can basically give shots all week,” said MacMillan. “Now I’ve had to downsize how many I order, just so I use them all up before they expire.”
MacMillan says he’s asked his pharmacy’s vaccine supplier if the new doses can be delivered on Mondays.
“It was basically just a, ‘It comes on Wednesday,’” he said.
Drayton Valley is located in Alberta’s Central Zone.
Meanwhile, over in one of the province’s North Zone towns, Barrhead, Alta., Rita’s Pharmacy faces a similar challenge with vaccine shipments.
“It is very erratic, and very hard to plan,” said Lonni Johnson, pharmacist at Rita’s Pharmacy. “Planning bookings has become quite a nightmare.”
Johnson tells CTV News Edmonton they only know a new shipment of the Moderna vaccine is coming when it shows up at their back door.
Once delivered, Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine has a longer fridge-life than Pfizer’s, at 30 days, but the number of doses that arrive at the pharmacy, Johnson says, is often inconsistent – and if that number doesn’t at least match the number of appointments the pharmacy has made with members of the community, appointments need to be cancelled.
Johnson says she’s had to cancel as many as one hundred appointments in one day because of a lack of supply – and is even unsure her pharmacy will be able to honour appointments made for next week, because doses for those bookings have still yet to arrive.
Pharmacist Daniel Wilneff has worked in multiple rural Alberta areas assisting with the vaccine rollout, as well as the mass vaccination site at Edmonton’s Expo Centre.
If you ask him if the stories out of Drayton Valley and Barrhead are rare, he would say no.
Wilneff believes those same logistical challenges are happening across Alberta.
“The story is the exact same,” Wilneff told CTV News Edmonton. “The demand is there, but the supply isn’t.”
Supply isn’t the only factor working against growing the number of vaccinated Albertans.
As disinformation about the vaccines circulate online and elsewhere, fear inspired by false beliefs and conspiracy theories contribute to vaccine hesitancy.
Alberta pharmacists are regularly fielding questions from people with concerns about the vaccine; a standard practice for the profession, but unfounded worries over microchipping and sterility in medications were perhaps not as common before COVID-19.
“Quite a bit of it is Facebook stuff. Like, ‘Oh, I heard my friend’s so and so died yesterday from this shot, is that true?’ Well, no,” said MacMillan.
The Drayton Valley pharmacist says he’s sat with some community members for as long as an hour, answering questions and trying to alleviate concerns.
At the end of the Q & A sessions, MacMillan says some people get the vaccine, but some don’t.
“I’m glad that they’re (asking questions),” said MacMillan, “because then they’re not spreading rumors that aren’t true and convincing more people, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t want it.'”
One Barrhead man, who would only identify himself as John, told CTV News Edmonton he’s done “quite a bit of research on it,” and has no plans to get vaccinated for COVID-19 right now.
“We’ve been told so many lies from the Alberta Government and the mainstream media that we really don’t know what to believe,” John said while sitting in a vehicle next to his sister Judith.
Judith says she’ll never get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“If I’m going to die, I’d rather die from catching the disease than catching the vaccine,” she said.
Another Barrhead man CTV News Edmonton spoke to said he did get the vaccine. He believes people refusing to do the same are ignorant.
“We do have a couple members in the family that are… well they have a difference of opinion, but other than that all immediate family is in favour of the vaccine,” said Raymond Steele.
Those differences of opinion, according to MacMillan, can sometimes lead to ‘vaccine shaming.’
“A lot of people will come in to get their shot and they’ll tell me, ‘Can you please not tell anybody else I got this,’” said MacMillan.
Meanwhile, Wilneff believes vaccine hesitancy in rural Alberta is actually lower than in the province’s urban centres. He says it’s the lack of access for rural Albertans that prevents more of them from getting the shot.
“The rural areas, their options are their pharmacies,” he said. “There are a lot more clinics in the cities: Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer.”
BRIBE OFFERS TO PHARMACISTS?
One Alberta pharmacist who wished to remain anonymous told CTV News Edmonton that he’s been approached on four separate occasions by people offering money for documentation saying they received the vaccine.
Wilneff says he himself has never been put into that position, and has never heard any other pharmacists make that claim either.
“I would be shocked to hear a pharmacy in Alberta doing something like that,” he said.
In a written statement to CTV News Edmonton, spokesperson for the Alberta College of Pharmacy (ACP) Barry Strader said the ACP “is not aware of any pharmacists being approached by members of the public requesting COVID-19 immunization documentation without providing vaccination.
“ACP requires that all pharmacists and pharmacy technicians comply with our Code of Ethics, standards of practice, practice guidelines, and provincial and federal legislation.”
While skepticism over the legitimacy of the vaccines does exist, MacMillan says there are also signs that opinions can be changed.
“I’ve definitely had questions from people that I thought, ‘There’s no way this person is going to get it,’ just because of the questions they’re asking,” said MacMillan. “And afterwards, when they told me, ‘I feel comfortable now, I’m glad you took the time to explain it to me,’ and, ‘Sign me up.'”
“It’s a good feeling,” he said.
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Dan Grummett
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