The majority of Alberta's oldest residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19, putting the province ahead of the national average for immunizations among the elderly.
About 74 per cent of Albertans aged 75 and older — the demographic group most vulnerable to the disease — have received COVID-19 vaccinations, Alberta Health confirmed.
As of Thursday, 184,977 Albertans in that age group have received at least one dose.
In the 65 to 74 age group, 88,896 people have been vaccinated, accounting for about 23 per cent of that age group, who began booking vaccinations on March 15.
Alberta began its vaccination campaign in December, first targeting high-risk populations that included residents of long-term care and designated supportive living facilities. Vaccination bookings were opened to the public last month.
Despite the promising trend, health experts say access to immunizations and vaccine hesitancy could remain barriers to establishing herd immunity.
"This reflects the really strong focus that Alberta has put on immunizing older Albertans," said Calgary-based pediatrician and infectious diseases specialist Dr. Jim Kellner.
'A good news story'
"I think that focus in Alberta has been stronger than in any other province or territory, and I think we have done really, really well.
"You can see the impact of this amount of vaccinations already reflected in the reduced death rate that we're seeing from COVID-19. We're starting to see a rise in cases related especially to the variants. But with that, the death rate has remained low."
As Alberta's vaccination campaign continues, death rates and hospitalizations will continue to decline, Kellner said.
"Despite all the noise and all the concerns about vaccine supply — as we are getting more vaccines right now and we are accelerating and increasing the number of people being immunized on a daily and weekly basis — the impact is going to continue to accumulate. And so that really is a good news story."
We must be paying attention to why people aren't getting immunized. - Dr. Jim Kellner
Despite the positive trend, it will be important to carefully monitor vaccine hesitancy, especially in high-risk populations, Kellner said. If immunization rates stall in the weeks ahead, it could threaten Alberta's bid for herd immunity.
"In an ideal world we would see 100 per cent of Albertans immunized, but we know, realistically, that not everyone will agree to be immunized," he said. "We must be paying attention to why people aren't getting immunized."
Nearly one in 10 Albertans have received at least one dose, placing the province "well ahead" of the national average, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said Thursday in a statement.
"To be clear, these are encouraging numbers," McMillan said. "We continue to work to administer the vaccine as quickly as possible. This includes health officials and others working with seniors facilities and other groups to help administer and support access to the vaccine."
As of Wednesday, Alberta had administered more than 512,000 doses of vaccine, and another 418,000 people had signed up to be immunized.
According to the latest figures from Health Canada, which are updated each Friday, 6.8 percent of Canadians have received at least their first shot.
At a national level, around 42 per cent of adults aged 80 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine.
Alberta seniors born in 1946 or earlier were allowed to start booking vaccination appointments on Feb. 24.
As of Thursday, about 65,000 people in that age group had yet to receive a first dose.
What we call vaccine hesitancy is largely a logistical problem for many. - Dr. Iris Gorfinkel
Experts say there are several reasons why so many have not yet joined the queue for vaccinations, even as infection and hospitalization rates across the province begin to rise.
Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, a family physician and vaccine researcher based in Toronto, said Alberta's vaccination campaign has made remarkable progress but some barriers remain.
Challenges around the accessibility of appointments, vaccine hesitancy and continued uncertainty about the efficacy of certain vaccines could all play roles, she said.
Gorfinkel said older patients may have limited access to the internet or struggle to navigate Alberta's online booking system for vaccination appointments.
"What we call vaccine hesitancy is largely a logistical problem for many," Gorfinkel said.
"We have set up systems that make them reliant on other people to do the job, so if we are not taking vaccines to them, that means much of the time they have to go online in order to book them.
Some may be afraid of being exposed to the virus at large vaccination clinics or may be unable to find transportation to their appointments, Gorfinkel said.
The province should consider establishing mobile vaccination units that would allow older Albertans to book appointments through family physicians and receive vaccinations at home, she said.
'A very potent message'
A "scarcity effect" is also at play, Gorfinkel said, and some Albertans, confused by a barrage of messaging around the four vaccines approved for use in Canada, may be holding out for a certain formula they believe to be the most effective.
Others may be afraid that "science was sacrificed" in the race to find an effective COVID-19 vaccine. She said recent headlines about the AstraZeneca vaccine and possible links to the rare development of blood clots have been particularly damaging.
She said the messaging needs to be clear, that all vaccines being administered in Canada are safe and life-saving.
"Every single one will prevent you from dying," she said. "That's a very potent message."
If vaccine supply remains stable, provincial health officials have said every adult Albertan will be offered a vaccination by the end of June.