Low levels of vaccination in Alberta’s NW

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

No pharmacies north of Manning are currently offering COVID vaccinations, even as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Mackenzie County, Alberta’s largest municipality.

In La Crete, Fort Vermilion and High Level, vaccinations for COVID-19 are only available by booking through Alberta Health Services.

Jan Welke and Cheryl Welke own High Level Value Drugs IDA Pharmacy and Pharmasave Fort Vermilion.

Jan Welke says they decided against offering coronavirus vaccinations after being approached by AHS to be part of the program due to the difficulties of adding the new service.

“Reviewing the logistics of it, we weren’t able to offer the service and also facilitate other clients,” Welke says.

Welke adds they are supportive of the program and that it wasn’t a supply issue or an issue of vaccine hesitancy, but rather an issue of already having to provide extensive community pharmacy services to a very large geographical area.

“It’s a different delivery of healthcare completely than in an urban centre,” Welke says.

With coronavirus restrictions on how many people can physically be in the pharmacy at one time, and newly-vaccinated clients needing to wait at least 15 minutes after vaccination to be observed for any potential allergic reaction, Welke says it would have made it difficult to fill prescriptions and handle the many other needs of their clients at the same time.

“We already provide very possible thing you could think to do in a community drug store,” Welke says.

“We didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin.”

However, he says the pharmacy regularly refers people to the Manning pharmacy, a two-hour drive from High Level, or to AHS.

“They’re doing a great job,” Welke says.

Six of La Crete’s schools have received government exemptions from masking in school to prevent the spread of the virus. They were also included in a province-wide exemption from moving to at-home classes only given to Mennonite and Hutterite schools, although two of the six exempt La Crete schools have already had to move to at-home learning due to COVID cases.

Mackenzie County Councillor Peter Braun lives in La Crete and has spoken out against testing for coronavirus and against the recent arrest of Artur and David Pawlowski for repeatedly holding full capacity church services breaking coronavirus guidelines.

Peace River MLA Dan Williams has said coronavirus testing is nothing to be afraid of but is a “personal choice”.

Mackenzie County Reeve Josh Knelsen has strongly criticized coronavirus restrictions, calling people who follow them “gutless sheep”.

Over 2,000 total COVID-19 immunizations have been completed by AHS in Mackenzie County to date, according to AHS Northern Zone spokesperson Diana Rinne.

Vaccinations on reserves are not included in that number, as doses are administered through a separate system and are tracked federally. First Nations have held vaccination clinics at their local community centres.

Mackenzie County’s population was 11,766 in 2020, meaning at 2,000 total vaccinations almost 17 per cent of the population has been vaccinated by public health.

However, that is well below the provincial average. At press time 45 per cent of Albertans 16 years of age or older had received at least one dose of vaccine, with the province surpassing two million total vaccinations.

Tony Nickonchuk is a Peace River pharmacist who sits on the Alberta Health Expert Committee for Drug Evaluation and Therapeutics, the committee responsible for making recommendations to the minister of health on what should or should not be covered by public drug plans. Part of his work is analyzing data, and his visual graphs showing the rapid growth of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic have been widely cited.

Nickonchuk has analyzed and averaged Government of Alberta vaccination figures for all local geographic areas from the Interactive Health Data Application, all of which are publicly available. He says the data in a chart he provided to South Peace News shows the local geographic area including High Level, Fort Vermilion and La Crete, and spanning both Mackenzie County and northwest Wood Buffalo, ranked worst in the province when it comes to vaccine uptake for every routine vaccination that’s tracked, such as the HPV vaccine and the MMR vaccine.

Out of 133 local geographic areas in the province, the area came in at an average rank for all vaccinations of 131.4. Next are Two Hills, County of Forty Mile, County of Lethbridge, Taber M.D., Fairview, Beaverlodge, Fort Macleod, Spirit River and Three Hills.

All of those areas also have a high Mennonite population.

Nickonchuk says the northern geographic area’s z-score is “even more enlightening”.

“It’s a measure of how much a given value deviates from the distribution of all the other values. So, even though High Level ranks poorly, maybe it isn’t really that different from other areas, just down the list,” he says.

“Except that isn’t the fact. The combined z-score for High Level is -100. Meaning on average it’s more than two standard deviations below the average of all the other areas. Which is crazy.”

At press time the area had 208 active coronavirus cases and 24 deaths.

At a contentious and dramatic special meeting May 12, Mackenzie County council discussed a ratepayer petition to divide the municipality up between wards 9,10 and Rainbow Lake and Ward 8, Fort Vermilion and L a Crete. The County is waiting to hear back on the petition from the minister of Municipal Affairs.

Editor’s note: Statements made by Cheryl Welke in an earlier online version have been deleted. Welke denies statements made that have already been published in South Peace News’ print edition.

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