'This is not a quick fix': Experts worry vaccine incentive is too little too late for Alberta

Public health experts are wondering why Alberta is choosing to dish out $100 to those who decide to get vaccinated now and whether the measure will effectively respond to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Premier Jason Kenney announced the vaccine incentive Friday, saying the government was inspired by the success of similar measures in other jurisdictions.

Lorian Hardcastle, University of Calgary associate professor in the Cummings School of Medicine, said monetary incentives are not a sure-fire way to drive vaccination.

“It’s not clear how many people will respond to that $100 monetary incentive,” she said. “On the one hand it could motivate some small subset of people to get vaccinated.

“On the other hand though, I think it fuels frustration and the increasing divide between those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t,” Hardcastle added. “People who got vaccinated are very resentful that those who didn’t, who chose not to, are now getting paid to get vaccinated.”

Dr. Craig Jenne, University of Calgary associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology, and infectious disease, echoed Hardcastle’s scepticism over the monetary incentives.

“It’s not clear how effective this will be,” Jenne said. “We need to get nearly 10 per cent more people vaccinated and it’s not clear that this will do it.

“The premier pointed out Colorado using this approach to drive vaccine rates up. I recently checked Colorado’s vaccine status and they’re about 15 per cent behind us,” he added.

In Jenne’s view, the incentive program is a long-term strategy that should have been introduced in advance of the fourth wave and not when cases are spiking.

“We are still looking at nearly two months before we would recognize that community protection,” he said. “Somebody signing up for a vaccine today will not have full immunity until they get their second dose a few weeks later and then wait a couple of weeks after that.

“So this is not a quick fix, this will not slow viral spread in the community today, tomorrow, or next week. This is really a long game.”

For Hardcastle, bringing back a provincial mask mandate represents a bare minimum. She worries that the measures, including ending alcohol service at 10 p.m., are being implemented too late.

“They waited until hospitals were already under really significant strain before implementing measures,” she said. “Many of the initiatives that were announced are voluntary in nature.

“For example, asking unvaccinated people to not have social gatherings I think will have very limited, if any, effects. Those people are already unwilling to get vaccinated. Perhaps they feel they’re at low risk or don’t worry about contracting COVID so it’s not clear why they would choose to not have gatherings if they don’t perceive their risk as significant.”

Jenne said the province needs to implement measures that will have an impact today to slow spread and give hospitals a chance to recover.

“If the health-care burden is at a crisis point, we need to do something today to slow that spread,” he said. “We are seeing, unfortunately, rapid growth that is not showing any signs of slowing. If these measures do not impact the daily case count, in the next couple of weeks we may need to implement further measures."

In Hardcastle’s view, one of the most effective public health measure that the province could have implemented was a vaccine passport.

“Some other jurisdictions, both in Canada and abroad, when they announced that only those who were vaccinated could attend certain businesses and services, vaccine rates there went up,” she said. “So I’m surprised to see our government continuing to dig their heels in on not making vaccines mandatory to go certain places.

“This is a government that has tried to walk the middle line throughout the pandemic and has tried to please both sides by having some measures in place, but measures that aren’t so strict as to alienate their political base,” the law professor added.

“By walking that middle line, they’ve really ended up both pleasing no one and also not been as effective as they could have been at managing the pandemic.”