Who are the unvaccinated? Why some Canadians still haven't had the COVID-19 vaccine

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When the COVID-19 vaccines started being distributed in Canada, David Sebele’s first thought was: “I don’t need it.”

“My thought was, they are in short supply and, my goodness, let the people who need it get it,” he said.

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After some time had passed and vaccines were more widely available Sebele, who lives in Niagara Falls, said he considered going to get one, but when Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a vaccine passport system that would begin in September 2021, it sealed the deal.

Sebele would not get vaccinated if it was “mandatory.”

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The vaccination campaign in Canada has seen great success so far. Currently, over 87 per cent of Canadians aged five and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and over 29 million people are fully vaccinated.

Now, as we approach the beginning of the third year of the pandemic, the federal and provincial governments are urging the remaining 13 per cent of eligible Canadians, like Sebele, to go get the jab.

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While some of these people will never get vaccinated — known commonly as the anti-vaxxers — the majority of the unvaccinated are hesitant. Experts say this group is not conspiracy theorists, rather they may be skeptical of the science, believe they have natural immunity, feel like they are being forced, or they don’t trust the government.

The National Post has spoken to some unvaccinated Canadians to learn why they chose to stay away from the shot and what it may take to convince them to go and get vaccinated.

In April 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, Chad Huseby’s wife began experiencing COVID-like symptoms. Her chest was tight and breathing laboured as a result of the illness, but Huseby said doctors weren’t able to figure out what she was suffering from.

After multiple visits to their family doctor and the emergency room, the consensus was that – while doctors were not 100 per cent positive – Huseby’s wife was most likely infected with the coronavirus.

Fast forward to over a year later, May 2021, and COVID is making its way through the Huseby’s home for a second time. This time the whole family got it, both Huseby and his wife as well as their five children. While Huseby ended up testing negative even though he was presenting symptoms, like loss of taste and smell, the family was confident that they were again infected with the coronavirus.

As virus conditions across Canada worsened as the year progressed, Huseby and his family, who live in Central Alberta, decided to go get tested for COVID-19 antibodies to see if they had any natural immunity to the virus.

“I don’t mind the idea of seeing what a person might have and gauging it from there, on the basis of what you might have and what you don’t have,” said Huseby.

The tests confirmed that they all had antibodies, which contributed to their decision to not get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I’m not by any means an anti-vax person,” said Huseby. “I suppose my biggest thing is I felt like everything has moved extremely fast.”

Rather than go and get his family vaccinated when they each became eligible, Huseby and his wife decided they would “watch and see.” He said that, while he appreciates the science and work that went into developing the COVID vaccine, he is skeptical about how quickly it was created and ready for distribution.

Despite more than 33,000 deaths in Canada and 5.6 million worldwide, he also said that he does not see the same deadly picture of the coronavirus that has been painted reflected in his own community. Huseby said he only knows one man who has passed away from COVID and he was 75-years-old. Right now, he said he is not worried about getting sick from the virus again.

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Experts say that these concerns are common amongst the vaccine-hesitant. Nazeem Muhajarine, professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, has been studying vaccine hesitancy and refusal in Saskatchewan. He said that someone’s understanding of the vaccine and their level of concern of spreading the disease contributes to whether or not they would be more hesitant.

Someone’s perceived personal vulnerability to the virus is one of the main characteristics that Muhajarine found distinguishes those who are hesitant and those who are willing to get vaccinated. These groups are hard to define, he said, because there are no outside markers like sex or race to distinguish them.

“Those who are hesitant are more likely to believe that it is not a very serious disease and they just don’t feel vulnerable to COVID-19 as much.”

Peter Jüni, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said even those who are young and live a relatively healthy life should prioritize getting vaccinated.

“A healthy lifestyle is not one of the preventative factors of COVID,” he said. “The only protective factor that we know about is vaccinations.”

The most important benefit of getting the COVID-19 vaccine is through protection against serious outcomes of getting the virus, said Jüni. These include hospitalization, ICU admission, and death. Jüni, who is the scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said that the “wait and see” approach increases someones chances of experiencing these serious side effects as well as the lasting effects of the virus.

“This vaccine is extremely safe,” he said. “You need to compare the high safety with the risk of infection.”

For Sebele, his main concern is “giving in to the bullies.” He said he would be open to getting the vaccine if COVID-19 became more dangerous and he was more at risk, but the vaccine passport system would have to be lifted.

“If there’s any kind of pressure, coercion, or threat of reprisal. I won’t do it. Even if it was a 90 per cent death rate. I will die before I give the government that victory.”

In Ontario, you currently must be fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption to enter high-risk indoor public settings.

Huseby said he has similar concerns about governments “coercing” people into getting vaccinated. Alberta currently has a Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) in place that requires proof of vaccination, negative test, or medical exemption to enter non-essential businesses.

“Everyone is an individual and everyone should be able to make that individual choice,” he said.

Vijay Wadhawan, vice president of health and wellness at Environics Research, said that when people feel like they are losing control and choice over their own healthcare decisions, it can make them even more hesitant and distrustful of voices mandating the vaccine.

“I think the more mandates that came out, the more that they felt like they were being punished for their decision,” he said.

In partnership with McGill University, Wadhawan researched vaccine hesitancy in Canada to better understand why these people are on the fence and how to best communicate with them.

He said the vaccine-hesitant often get lumped into the anti-vaccine category, which leads to them feeling othered and their concerns misunderstood. In reality, Wadhawan said the vaccine-hesitant are often open to listening and learning. He said some are waiting for more data and many just want more time to pass.

Most experts have agreed that data shows there is not one specific type of person who is more likely to be vaccine-hesitant. Through his research in Saskatchewan, Muhajarine said he found four categories of people who are more likely to be hesitant.

They are people from minority communities, people who follow holistic health, those who don’t trust the government, and the anti-vaxxers. These categories fall on a continuum from most likely to get vaccinated to least.

Muhajarine explained that those who come from minority communities are more likely to be hesitant because they may speak a different language or have not been in the country long enough to trust the health-care system. People who follow a natural health regimen may be more conscious of what they put in their bodies or believe they have natural immunity. Those who don’t trust the government believe that vaccine approval may have happened too fast or question the legitimacy of the vaccines. Finally, the anti-vaxxers may believe in conspiracy theories and will probably never get the vaccine.

Instead of focusing on getting the anti-vaxxers to get the jab, Wadhawan said the government should be focusing on communicating with the hesitant who may be more willing to change their minds.

He said that those who are hesitant are usually more concerned about their personal freedoms and health. Messaging that focuses on the greater good of the community will not impact them as much.

“I don’t think it’s because they don’t care about their community,” said Wadhawan. “They’re in this kind of survival mode in many ways and they’re trying to make a decision that makes the most sense for them and their family without having that wider view of the broader community.”

Less simplicity in messaging would also be beneficial, said Wadhawan. Those who haven’t gotten the vaccine yet want to have a more nuanced conversation about the benefits and risks. He said it may give them more comfort knowing it is widely studied and understood.

Huseby said that more concise information on the vaccines would be necessary for him and his family to get vaccinated. Since his family has already had COVID, he said he wonders if he would still have to get a full round of shots or if he could just get a booster.

Until then, and for the foreseeable future, he said “patience is still the path forward.”

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