Feb. 12, 2021

Digital forum to address hopes and challenges for COVID-19 vaccination

Feb. 16 event will address public confusion, skepticism around COVID-19 vaccines and effective strategies to engage and educate Canadians about vaccination
Speakers (L-R) Jia Hu, Raj Pannu Jim Kellner, Jeanna Parsons Leigh, Shannon MacDonald (moderator)
From left: Jia Hu, Raj Pannu Jim Kellner, Jeanna Parsons Leigh, Shannon MacDonald (moderator)

COVID-19 has stopped the world in its tracks. But relegating the pandemic to the annals of history will not be as easy as simply introducing an effective vaccine.

A public virtual forum, co-hosted by the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and the 19 To Zero initiative, will bring together a panel of experts from across the continent to discuss the significant challenges and opportunities associated with the distribution, application and acceptance of the new vaccines.

Vaccinating the population against COVID-19 is seen as a key step to halting a pandemic that has killed more than 2.2 million people around the world, more than 20,000 of them in Canada, burdening the health-care system, derailing the economy, and taking away all sense of normalcy as it relates to work, family and play.

'Only way out of this pandemic'

“Getting a significant portion of the population vaccinated is the only way out of this pandemic,” says Dr. Jia Hu, MD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, CSM, and co-chair of 19 to Zero, a national coalition of academics, public health experts, behavioural economists, and creative professionals working to combat public confusion and mistrust around COVID-19 vaccination.

While this pandemic has been met with unprecedented development of several vaccines, a key challenge public health officials now face is ensuring enough of the population is vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus.

According to 19 To Zero, if the current vaccine is 95 per cent effective, as the Pfizer vaccine claims to be, 70 per cent of the Canadian population will have to be immunized for the vaccine to achieve its intended aim.

Vaccine hesitancy a stumbling block

Vaccine hesitancy is making this proposition difficult, says Hu, who is one of the panellists at the Feb. 16 event and an O’Brien Institute member. 

"The percentage of Canadians who would get a vaccine as soon as it is available to them in Angus Reid polling has been fluctuating, from a low of 39 per cent this summer to around 60 per cent today, which is the highest we've seen," he says.  

Vaccine hesitancy, along with competitive pressure from governments pushing to secure supplies for their own populations, and the logistical challenges that come with vaccinating millions of people, show the true scale of what public health professionals are up against as they work to defeat the virus, says Hu.

No safety issues detected

There are a range of reasons people may be hesitant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine including concerns about safety of a vaccine developed so quickly. However, those fears are unfounded, says Hu.

“The COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed are very effective and very safe. They have already been given to tens of millions of people and we haven't detected any safety issues.”

Hu encourages people who do have concerns or questions to consult a trusted source of information such as a family doctor or other health professional.

Ensuring that Canadians have accurate and timely information about COVID-19 matters now more than ever, says Dr. Jeanna Parsons Leigh, PhD, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health at Dalhousie University, Halifax, and speaker at the Feb. 16 forum.

Public acceptance key

“We know that public acceptance of new vaccines will have challenges. Knowing effective ways to target rapidly evolving information to different subsets of the population may increase our chances of improved public health literacy and associated positive public health behaviours, including getting vaccinated,” she says.

Promisingly, the majority of Canadians are actively seeking out trustworthy sources of information about COVID-19, says Parsons Leigh, a member of the O’Brien Institute.  

The public forum, which will be moderated by University of Alberta nursing and public health professor Dr. Shannon MacDonald, PhD, will also feature Dr. Raj Pannu, co-founder and CEO of Emergence Creative, a New York-based social impact communications agency, and Dr. Jim Kellner, MD, a professor and member of the O’Brien Institute, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, and immunology and infectious diseases expert at the CSM.

Anatomy of a Pandemic: Hopes and Challenges for the Coronavirus Vaccine is free and open to the public. Register here for the Feb. 16 virtual event.

19 To Zero is an Alberta-grown coalition that started out of the University of Calgary. It now represents academics, public health experts, behavioural economists, and creative professionals from around the world working to understand, engage with, and shift public perceptions around COVID-19 behaviours and vaccination. Visit their website to learn more.