Thousands of people in B.C. remain unvaccinated. How can health officials convince them to get immunized?

Despite the provincial government’s months-long campaign and messaging about the safety, efficacy and importance of COVID-19 vaccines, thousands of eligible British Columbians remain completely unvaccinated.

As of Wednesday, about 77 per cent of eligible people in B.C. have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Ideally, health officials would like to see all eligible British Columbians fully vaccinated.

While some recent measures — notably, the introduction of a proof-of-vaccination program due to start Sept. 13 — have resulted in an uptick in vaccination numbers, some experts are warning that they will likely not be enough to keep vaccination rates trending upward. 

Convincing the remaining unvaccinated population to get immunized might require a different approach, they say.

That assertion was backed up Wednesday by the mass protests in cities across B.C., during which thousands gathered outside hospitals, claiming the vaccine-card program — which will require residents to be fully vaccinated to participate in non-essential activities — violates their freedom.

Thousands took part in a protest against vaccine passports in Vancouver on Sept. 1. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza)

Heidi Tworek, an associate professor of public policy at the University of British Columbia, says this stage in the immunization campaign will be the most difficult for public health officials. 

People have made their decisions not to get vaccinated for myriad reasons, she said — for example, they may not have had physical access to vaccine yet, they may need information in other languages, they may be afraid of needles in general, or they could be staunch anti-vaxxers. 

“I think one thing we have to keep in mind is that no [single] message is going to work for this 20 per cent of people,” she told CBC’s The Early Edition guest host Michelle Eliot.

Tworek said unvaccinated people need to be approached as individuals, rather than as a group. 

She said both public health professionals and people hoping to convince loved ones to get vaccinated should treat the conversation as one that is ongoing, rather than a “one-and-done” situation. 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix continue to encourage British Columbians aged 12 and up to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Employing curiosity and empathy shows understanding and a willingness to support, and can help identify the barriers getting in the way of the person being vaccinated. From there, Tworek said it’s important to keep people open to getting the vaccine, as opposed to making them shut down and completely reject it.

In some cases, Tworek said, there may be a more suitable person to have these conversations with people. For instance, they may be more willing to listen to a doctor than to a parent or sibling, or they may prefer to hear from a friend rather than take advice from public health. 

No matter who we’re talking to at this point, Tworek reminds people to be patient. 

“It will be more of a slog than it was in the early days of getting people vaccinated,” she said.

Health officials recently began releasing information about the percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations attributed to unvaccinated individuals. From Aug. 17 to 30, more than 83 per cent of hospitalizations were among unvaccinated people.

“I think unfortunately, we see some of these risks [of not being vaccinated] unfolding at the moment, which is huge numbers of rising cases, rising hospitalizations and then further restrictions,” Tworek said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said he and other leaders will continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.

“We have the obligation to provide answers to those questions and to work with people, and that’s the work that’s been done by health-care workers every single day, including in our ICUs when people are being treated,” Dix said. 

“Everyone who gets vaccinated is making themselves safer, their loved ones safer, their communities safer, and even the people who protested [on Wednesday] safer.”

British Columbians aged 12 and over who have not yet been immunized can register in three ways:

People can also be immunized at walk-in clinics throughout the province.

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