Small town, heavy toll: Exploring Aylmer's low COVID vaccination rate

·4 min read

“I’d just like to get our town back.”

The words of a restaurant clerk to a customer were echoed one day recently by many in this quaint town of 7,500, about 40 minutes southeast of London – a longtime flashpoint in the pushback against COVID-19 restrictions, and a continuing hot spot for virus cases.

Residents and business owners in small-town Aylmer say they’re frustrated and dismayed by the pandemic amid a surge in area COVID-19 cases and looming public health restrictions.

“Let’s just get it over with,” was the message Bill Sheppard, a fully vaccinated resident, had for the unvaccinated. “If you don’t want it, don’t do it. But you can’t go sit in a restaurant. Just go get a shot,” he said, expressing concern of another lockdown.

[caption id="attachment_697698" align="alignnone" width="1000"] John Bergen (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)[/caption]

Home to several anti-restriction and anti-mask movements amid the pandemic, the Elgin County town — and its surrounding rural township — make up the least vaccinated postal codes in Ontario. Roughly 50 per cent of people in the N5H postal code are fully vaccinated, according to data from the province’s non-profit ICES, which analyzes health data in Ontario. In nearby London, by contrast, it's more than 85 per cent.

Sitting in his car outside a coffee shop in Aylmer, John Bergen described why he hadn’t received his first COVID-19 vaccine. “I’m thinking about it,” he said.

Until recently, Bergen said getting vaccinated was too much of “a hassle.” But with increased vaccine mandates and proof of vaccine requirements, he added that it would become more of a hassle not to receive the two doses.

“It should be people’s choices . . . but it’s becoming the law.”

He worries it will get to a point where he can no longer go shopping, he said, adding that he’s contemplating getting his first dose soon.

The low vaccination rates have left many residents vulnerable to COVID-19 as cases in the town continue to increase — part of a surge in infections and hospitalizations across Elgin and Oxford counties that's among the worst in Ontario. The situation has prompted the health unit to reintroduce public health measures soon to curb the spread.

The Free Press asked more than a dozen residents, patrons and business owners their views on the situation. Most declined to speak on the record about what some described as a “controversial” topic in town, where many know one another.

A handful of people were not fazed by the figures, while others expressed anger and disappointment.

“To be honest, it’s very sad,” Karen Ciupka said, standing outside her home near the main street. “My husband and I are elderly. We actually go to St. Thomas to do our shopping because it’s safer. I’m hoping that people will get on board and get their shots.”

The recent swell of area infections has largely been driven by the unvaccinated population, which make up about 75 per cent of recent area cases. The area's top public-health official, Dr. Joyce Lock, said contact tracers are seeing COVID-19 spread through entire families.

“The common scenario is we have an unvaccinated adult who contracts COVID at work or at a social event, then brings it home to their entire unvaccinated family,” she said. “Their children become school cases and that puts entire buses and classrooms into self-isolation. That’s the cycle that’s going on here.”

Aylmer and its neighbouring township are home to a diverse population, including many German-speaking Mennonites. The town has garnered widespread attention throughout the pandemic, the local Church of God heading several anti-lockdown movements.

For businesses like Durkee’s Ltd., a downtown clothing store, the recent surge in cases — and the attention Aylmer has received as a result — has hurt business and reduced foot traffic dramatically, owner Kevin Cross said.

“We have people calling all the time saying, ‘I’ve been a (long-time) customer and I’m not coming in anymore,’” Cross said. “It’s a frustration. We follow protocol. People aren’t getting it from walking into a store.”

Sylvia Hall, a sales representative, said the pandemic has had a “profound effect,” not only on business but the overall community.

“It’s unfortunate the way things are,” Hall said. “I lived here most of my life. We have a wonderful community. We have to keep each other safe.”

Like many residents, Hall, who’s fully vaccinated, believes getting immunized from the COVID-19 virus is a personal choice. She attributed the low vaccination rates, in part, to varying beliefs in the community and says an educational approach needs to be taken.

"We have a diverse community. We have vocal people . . . and a population that keeps to themselves and that’s where we’re seeing the cases rise,” Hall said. “They’re not getting the education, how to wash their hand and how to stay safe.”

-with files from Jennifer Bieman

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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