Enthusiasm for COVID vaccine among Gen-X Albertans is infectious, experts say

·4 min read
Lana Weatherdon, 43, receives the AstraZeneca vaccine from Lee Buzzell-Lavoie at the Telus Convention Centre immunization site in Calgary on April 20, 2021. As of this week, Albertans as young as 40 can get the shot. (Leah Hennel for AHS - image credit)
Lana Weatherdon, 43, receives the AstraZeneca vaccine from Lee Buzzell-Lavoie at the Telus Convention Centre immunization site in Calgary on April 20, 2021. As of this week, Albertans as young as 40 can get the shot. (Leah Hennel for AHS - image credit)

As Alberta gen-Xers rush to roll up their sleeves for vaccines against COVID-19, public health experts say their enthusiasm could prove infectious.

The scramble for limited supplies of the vaccine is a "good problem," said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta.

"I love that there is this strong interest in the vaccines," Caulfield said in an interview.

"That's exactly what you want."

Caulfield hopes the enthusiasm of Gen-Xers — the generation born between 1965 and 1980 — will spread as Alberta contends with a worsening third wave of the infectious disease.

Last Sunday evening, Premier Jason Kenney announced on Twitter that Alberta would lower the minimum age to get the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine from 55 to 40.

The move was "based on growing scientific knowledge" and advice from Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Kenney said.

Sign. Me. Up.

Some Albertans tweeted their positive reactions in three simple words: Sign. Me. Up.

And they followed through, making more immunization appointments in the span of 2½ hours Tuesday than had been made during the entire preceding week.

At vaccination sites across the province, the excitement pushed clinics past capacity and triggered concerns that Alberta's finite supply would run out.

Between Tuesday morning and Wednesday night, more than 52,353 people booked appointments for AstraZeneca at immunization sites operated by Alberta Health Services — more than five times the uptake recorded during all of the previous week.

Selfies, memes and #GenXZeneca

When they had their encounters with the needle, Gen-Xers took to social media to celebrate by sharing selfies and memes, often using a new hashtag — #GenXZeneca.

The enthusiasm provides more hope in the fight against COVID-19, said Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Alberta Children's Hospital, who runs the Vaccine Hesitancy Clinic in Calgary.

"It's really nice to actually shift the conversation," Constantinescu said. "Here we are talking about vaccine acceptance versus vaccine hesitancy."

Wayne Noelck, 46, lined up outside the Edmonton Expo Centre vaccination clinic on Tuesday, hours before it opened.

"I'm happy to get my shot," he said. "I want to get on with our lives."

While many members of generation X rejoiced that it was finally their turn, others expressed anger at their elders.

Social media was riddled with complaints about baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — for their apparent failure to get on board with the vaccination effort.

But boomers shouldn't be blamed for any previous lags in immunization rates, Caulfield said.

He said the frustration toward baby boomers stems from impatience with the staggered rollout, vaccine envy, and what Gen-Xers might call FOMO (the fear of missing out).

Villainizing older people who may be hesitant to get the shot will only fuel frustration with Alberta's pandemic response, he said.

Caulfield said Albertans should focus on harnessing the excitement around immunizations — not alienating people who are fearful.

"There is vaccination hesitancy across all the demographics," he said. "Let's not start demographic wars."

In January, an Angus Reid poll suggested Albertans are more likely to avoid the shot than people in any other province.

Challenges around the accessibility of appointments, confusion caused by shifting vaccine guidelines, a staggered rollout and ongoing supply shortages can all contribute, Caulfield said.

Reports of blood clots also play a part, he said, as do personal politics and conspiracy theories that circulate online.

"There is increasing misinformation," he said. "All of that combines to make a very noisy information environment."

'Vaccine champions'

Before the age of eligibility was lowered, Hinshaw implored Albertans to get their shots while thousands of AstraZeneca appointments weren't filled.

Constantinescu said the recent urgency for vaccines may be driven by escalating rates of infection among younger Albertans, and by the prevalence of essential workers and parents in the newly-eligible age group.

Gen-Xers could provide an effective antidote to vaccine hesitancy among other Albertans, she said.

People reluctant about immunizations are more likely to rely on social media and friends and family for medical information, instead of heeding advice from public health officials. But with younger people taking to the internet in droves to share their vaccination experiences, their influence could prove powerful.

The buzz created by these "vaccine champions" is already having an impact, Constantinescu said.

"Share with your friends and your family and your people on social media why you're taking this vaccine, why you're excited," she said. "Start building that community influence, which is the first step to community protection."

Randy Schroeder, 56, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from public health nurse Nashrin Valani at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary on April 19, 2021.
Randy Schroeder, 56, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from public health nurse Nashrin Valani at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary on April 19, 2021.(Leah Hennel/AHS)

As of Wednesday, more than 1.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in the province.

Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the highest vaccine uptake has been in the age groups that have been eligible the longest.