MONTREAL — The Health Department's messaging during the pandemic has led to confusion and mistrust among residents of Quebec's Beauce region — and could help explain low vaccination rates, according to a local mayor.
About 65 per cent of residents in the Beauce-Sartigan municipality are vaccinated with one dose and 66 per cent of residents in the Robert-Cliche municipality have had one shot, according to the regional health authority of Chaudière-Appalaches. Both municipalities are in the Beauce region, south of Quebec City.
Across the area served by the Chaudière-Appalaches health authority, 72.6 per cent of residents have received at least one dose — comparable with the provincewide first-dose rate of 72.8 per cent.
Jonathan V. Bolduc, mayor of Saint-Victor, Que., and the prefect of Robert-Cliche, says public health officials must send a clearer message about COVID-19 vaccination and demonstrate the benefits for the population.
"Public health has to work to demystify the vaccine," Bolduc said in a recent interview. "There are people who talk to me who doubt the effectiveness of the vaccine."
Bolduc said he's heard from constituents who have said that mixed messaging about masks at beginning of the pandemic and changing guidance about the interval between doses of COVID-19 vaccines have left them skeptical. While he said most people in the region are following public health orders "religiously," many don't understand why Quebec is reopening more slowly than other countries with lower vaccination rates.
"We're making all the effort and we see the vaccination numbers in Quebec — including the Beauce — are higher than countries that are reopening," he said, adding that the situation has left people saying, “we’ve made the efforts, but what’s in it for me?”
On Tuesday, Marie-Ève Tanguay, head of vaccination for the health authority that includes the Beauce region, told Radio-Canada it was difficult to reach people and convince them to be vaccinated, describing the region as "a little more problematic."
The regional health authority declined an interview request from The Canadian Press this week, saying it had received comments from people in the area who felt targeted by Tanguay's choice of words.
It's not the first time people in the region have felt unfairly treated by authorities, Bolduc said.
Residents felt singled out by the government during the third wave of the pandemic, when the Beauce-Sartigan and Robert-Cliche municipalities remained at Quebec's highest pandemic-alert level longer than other parts of Chaudière-Appalaches, he added.
"We're a little embarrassed and even frustrated to have been singled out for such a long time," he said, adding that it would have been nice if Quebec Premier François Legault had noted when things began to improve in the region. “At a press conference, when things are going poorly, they point at the Beauce, but when things get better, they don’t point at the Beauce."
The regional health authority is taking steps to reach more people, spokesperson Mireille Gaudreau said. In an email, she said a mobile vaccination bus is being used to reach municipalities with lower vaccination rates, adding that the bus will also visit some campgrounds, a racetrack and public events in the region.
Bolduc said he thinks improving access is part of the solution, explaining that during a visit by the vaccination bus to Saint-Victor on Tuesday, around 160 doses of vaccine were administered to residents — including him.
Thomas Poder, a professor at Université de Montréal's school of public health who has studied attitudes toward vaccination in Quebec, said that while he hadn't specifically studied the region, its history of voting for conservative politicians may suggest people in the area are less trusting of government and the media — the two institutions that have carried pro-vaccination discourses in Quebec.
"This could explain their greater reluctance to get the vaccine, due to lack of confidence," he wrote in an email. The region's geographical isolation may also play a role, he added.
There are nine active cases of COVID-19 in Chaudière-Appalaches, according to the health authority.
Quebec reported 99 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and three more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had incorrectly stated the percentage of total Quebec population vaccinated with one dose.