What this mountain town can teach health officials about COVID-19 vaccinations for kids 5-11

·5 min read
Alice Wannop plays at Centennial Park in Jasper, Alta. The 10-year-old said she was a bit nervous about getting her COVID-19 vaccination, but it was something she wanted to do. (Sam Martin/CBC - image credit)
Alice Wannop plays at Centennial Park in Jasper, Alta. The 10-year-old said she was a bit nervous about getting her COVID-19 vaccination, but it was something she wanted to do. (Sam Martin/CBC - image credit)

Jasper is known for its snow-capped mountains, wildlife and abundance of family-friendly activities.

But it also has something that is drawing the attention of public health officials: the town has the highest rate in Alberta of five- to 11-year-olds with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

As of May 2, 80.8 per cent of that age group has rolled up their sleeves for one dose, according to data from Alberta Health. That rate is nearly double the provincial average of 46.37 per cent, which is the lowest in the country, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Although urban centres in Alberta dominate the list of regions with the province's highest vaccination uptakes for kids five to 11 years old, Jasper sits atop the pack, and health officials and community members say a number of factors contribute to that.

Lynn and Andrew Wannop run Coco's Cafe in Jasper. When the pandemic struck in early 2020, it not only hurt business, but Andrew, who is asthmatic, also didn't leave the house much.

"I stayed home with the kids and we kind of isolated at the beginning," he said.

Sam Martin/CBC
Sam Martin/CBC

When vaccines were approved for adults, the pair got their doses. And as soon as vaccines for those ages five to 11 were given the green light, they signed their two kids up immediately.

"They wanted it," Lynn Wannop said.

"They lived through it as much as we did. As a kid, you listen to your parents and they're hearing us saying being vaccinated is important. They never questioned it."

Alice, 10, said she was a bit nervous about getting her shot, but it was something she wanted to do.

"I [understood] it more because my mom said that it actually would make me less sick," she said, adding that life has felt "normal" since she was vaccinated in November 2021.

Contributing factors

Figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada show 56.82 per cent of kids between five and 11 years of age nationally have at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of April 24. The number is significantly lower than the 84.83 per cent of Canadians eligible for vaccine who have at least one dose.

Jasper Mayor Richard Ireland said there are several reasons why there has been strong vaccination uptake overall in the town, an attitude that he believes trickled down to immunizing five- to 11-year-olds. One hundred per cent of youth between the ages of 12 and 19 have at least one dose, Alberta Health numbers show, as of May 2. All other age groups have uptakes of greater than 90 per cent.

WATCH | Keys to Jasper's vaccination success:

The town, nestled in the Rocky Mountains, has long attracted visitors from across Canada and around the world.

Travel restrictions meant to keep COVID-19 at bay hit Jasper's economy hard and vaccinations were one way to protect business, Ireland said.

Julia Wong/CBC
Julia Wong/CBC

"Our economy is entirely based on visitation. There is that front-line interface with so many people you don't know. We continue to encourage people to come to our community but they're not people that you know. You don't know where they've been, who they've been in contact with," he said.

"We need to preserve a reputation as a safe destination to visit. Part of that safety is public health, and so the more we can generate that sense of safety — both internally and externally — the better we all do.

Ireland also said that the town is tight-knit because of its small population — 4,201 people — and is also a densely packed, which encourages people to have a greater sense of protecting one another.

"People run into each other everywhere."

On top of that, Ireland believes that the outdoor, active mentality of residents predisposes them to embrace vaccinations.

Julia Wong/CBC
Julia Wong/CBC

"Whether it's skiing or hiking … safety measures and mitigation just come naturally to people here," Ireland said.

"There's a risk out there. It happens to be a virus. How do I mitigate against that? How do I keep my children safe?"

Health authority keeping tabs

Jasper family physician Dr. Declan Unsworth said health-care workers tried to ensure vaccines were readily accessible for the five- to 11-year-old age group and that wait lists for vaccine appointments were shared between providers.

"All of us physicians, we're all strong proponents of vaccines. We did try to make a point of talking to all of our patients, all of our parents about the importance of vaccination."

Sam Martin/CBC
Sam Martin/CBC

Unsworth is hopeful that the success of vaccinating those five to 11 years of age will trickle down to the under-five-year-olds once a vaccine is approved for them, adding he has been fielding questions from parents about when that time will come.

Dr. Kathryn Koliaska, the medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services for that part of the province, said Jasper is "special" because of how interconnected the community is, from public health nurses to employers to businesses.

"What we've learned from Jasper is ... how powerful that is. Even though we've intended to be adaptable all along, Jasper has really shown how successful that can be when health and our communities work together."

The health authority is seeing what can be taken away from the high rates in Jasper to help boost rates in other parts of the province.

"In Jasper, for example, travel, work, health all intersect and come together as a reason to get vaccinated. That specific reason might not be applicable straight across the province, but listening to the reasons and the way we work together absolutely is," Koliaska said.

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