Arrow Lakes region has lowest COVID vaccine coverage among youth

New statistics from BC’s Ministry of Health show children in the Arrow Lakes sub-region of Interior Health are the least likely in the province to have received a vaccination against COVID-19.

The stats released last week showed only 15% of children from ages 5-11 have received their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine – the lowest rate for that age group in the province. The stats recorded vaccination levels between October 6 and 23.

That number drops even further, to 9%, for children who have received their second shot (Nisga’a, a health sub-region in northern BC, had the only lower coverage rate for the second dose for that age group, at 8%).

“The numbers are quite low for the Arrow Lakes region,” admits Dr. Sue Pollock, a physician specializing in public health for Interior Health. “They’re lower than I would like to see.”

Vaccine hesitancy in the area isn’t just for kids. The West Kootenay and Northern BC health regions also recorded the lowest uptake of vaccinations for the general population in October. The Kootenay Lake sub-region is among the lowest in the province, with 72% of the 18+ population having received their second dose of vaccine. Arrow Lakes has 76%, Nelson 78% and Trail 88%.

Older residents of the area have taken heed of the advice to get vaccinated, with numbers for people over 50 ranging from 82% in the Arrow Lakes region to 92% in Trail, not significantly lower than the rest of the province.

Three C’s

Dr. Pollock says part of the issue is the public health campaign for children to get vaccinated is really only getting to full steam now.

“We’re still quite early in our campaign with kids and vaccines,” she said. “We are watching the numbers across our region carefully and looking at where we can ensure we have a little more attention paid to provide support to families in terms of pediatric vaccines.”

Pollock says there are likely several reasons for the hesitancy.

“Historically, we’ve seen lower numbers in uptake of childhood vaccines [in the Arrow Lakes sub-region] compared to other regions in Interior Health. We think about it in terms of the ‘Three C’s’” she says. “Convenience is the first, how available, acceptable are vaccines.

“Complacency is the second ‘C,’ the perception that the risk is low, and vaccines aren’t necessary. The last one is Confidence – the level of trust from individuals, from families, in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.”

Pollock says IH has worked hard to make the vaccines as convenient as possible to get, holding regular clinics in the region; and reducing complacency about the virus by reminding people with winter coming, communicable diseases also are on the rise, and children can get sick and even hospitalized with COVID. As for confidence in vaccines, IH is continuing to inform the public about the safety of vaccines. It’s also developing ‘community champions,’ people in formal and informal leadership roles in the area to help promote confidence and general vaccine awareness.

No surprise

But the low numbers for immunization among Arrow Lakes children don’t come as a surprise to Miranda Hughes, a retired doctor in New Denver who runs a COVID information Facebook page for the north Slocan valley. She said it shows a shift in the attitude towards vaccines.

“Culturally, we’ve switched narratives with vaccines, from parents wanting to keep their children as safe as possible by vaccinating them, to parents wanting to keep their children as safe as possible by avoiding the (vastly overblown) risks of vaccines,” Hughes told the Valley Voice. “With severe COVID being very unusual amongst young children, and recent variants showing little difference in transmission amongst the vaccinated, I think it is hard to make really persuasive arguments that will convince parents who are generally vaccine-hesitant.”

Ironically, that shift has been partly caused by the success vaccines have had in protecting the bulk of the population, Hughes notes. “I think vaccination has been a huge success amongst adults and the fact that we can have outbreaks tearing through our community with little in the way of serious health repercussions is down to that,” she says. “At this point, the bigger payoff would probably be in focusing more on people staying home when sick, masking liberally in indoor congregated environments, and in improving ventilation in places where people gather. These things will have the effect of also reducing flu, RSV and norovirus transmission.”

While Pollock agrees masking and other strategies can help prevent transmission, she’s still strongly recommending parents get their children protected against COVID-19, the flu, and other transmissible diseases as the winter flu season begins.

“Parents may be more comfortable with the flu vaccine. It’s been around longer,” she says. “So if parents are coming in to get their child vaccinated for the flu, that’s a good opportunity for parents to ask about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We can always do more,” she admits. “So we’re going to continue to make sure we have good accessibility to the vaccine, and ensure we have resources for our local health care providers to be able to answer questions parents have.

“There’s been a lot of research done on vaccines, and we know they are safe and effective. Many, many children have received them without adverse side effects, and I would encourage parents to reach out to those they trust in their communities and ask questions.

“Go to the Interior Health website, talk to your local health care provider, and know we’re not through the pandemic yet and vaccinations continue to be the best tool we have for preventing COVID-19 infection.”

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice