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'Keep the momentum going': York Region council explores ways to sway the vaccine hesitant

Younger age groups still lagging behind, public health says
June 29, 2021

Not good enough.

That’s the opinion of one member of York Region council regarding attempts to sway residents still on-the-fence about COVID-19 vaccinations.

Markham Regional Coun. Jack Heath voiced concerns at the June 24 meeting when York staff outlined plans for tackling vaccine hesitancy -- or, as the region calls it, "vaccine confidence".

York Region vaccine rates are among the highest in the province, but Katarina Garpenfeldt, the region’s Health Emergency Planning Specialist, said up to 30 per cent of residents may remain reluctant to roll up their sleeves.

The region is aiming to get 80 to 85 per cent of the population immunized to help avoid future outbreaks.

In a presentation at last week’s regional council meeting, staff outlined ways to reach that target including education, communication and reducing barriers.

Heath was not impressed.

"I'm not happy with it," he said. "I think there needs to be more."

People shouldn't feel free to ignore the need to vaccinate, he said.

"This requires a stick."

Garpenfeldt said the region has a "robust" communications plan that uses an "empathetic lens".

"As we know, not everyone will be able to, or will choose to get vaccinated," she said. "The evidence is clear that a one-size-fits-all approach is not likely to be effective."

Among the approaches: multilingual messaging on the website, social media and paid advertising, transportation to and from clinics, engaging with cultural and faith-based groups, communication training webinars and info packages for physicians, employers and long-term care homes, first-dose walk-in clinics, workplace pop-ups and working with paramedic services to reach the homebound.

Younger age groups remain a challenge, she said.

In older groups, after about 75 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, demand tends to plateau, but among younger age groups, demand is plateauing at about 65 per cent, Dr. Karim Kurji, medical officer of health, said.

"We know that we are not unique, and other health units are experiencing this as well," Garpenfeldt said.

Part of the reason for lower uptake in younger groups is because their eligibility opened up later, she said.

“Right now we are quite swamped with the demand for second doses, which is great,” Kurji said.

However, it means younger groups are competing with this unusually high demand for earlier second doses, he added.

Increased supply of vaccines in coming weeks should make a dent in the pent-up demand, he said.

As well, Kurji said, many are parents of young families working full-time with multiple responsibilities, making it difficult to schedule appointments.

Easier, more accessible services like pop-up clinics may be a way to reach younger age groups, Garpenfeldt said.

More family-friendly clinics are planned, as well as drive-throughs that enable parents to bring young children with them, Kurji said.

Members of council brainstormed other ideas, including mall clinics, heavily marketed first-dose days, safety stickers for businesses and leveraging "youth influencers".

Heath argued stronger measures are needed -- making it clear to people who want to travel they’ll need to be double-vaccinated, for example, and making it mandatory in schools and long-term care.

"We have to remember that vaccine is a personal choice," Vaughan Regional Coun. Linda Jackson cautioned. "We don't have vaccine trucks driving around grabbing people and throwing them on the dirt and vaccinating them. People have a right to choose."

Public health surveyed people who tested positive for COVID-19 to find out why they didn’t get vaccinated and found about 56 per cent had intended to get shots but hadn’t got around to it. Another 22 per cent said that no matter what education is provided, they have zero intention of rolling up their sleeves, Kurji said.

The prevalence of misinformation presents "interesting challenges", Kurji said.

With so many twists and turns in public messages over vaccines, it’s no wonder people’s confidence is undermined, he said.

Kurji stressed these fluid conditions are normal in any emerging therapeutic field.

"This has been a crisis like none other and these are relatively uncharted territories”

Medicine and science are expected to adapt with new information, he said. “It’s a credit to the system as a whole that we try and keep people as safe as possible with new information that emerges.”

The fact remains, vaccines are safer than COVID-19, he said.