COVID-19: Meet the people trying to improve vaccination rates in areas of Surrey slammed by the virus

After getting hit with high COVID cases and low vaccination rates, Fraser Health took the fight against the virus inside the South Asian community. Here’s how health workers are doing it.

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As she sat in front of the Dukh Nivaran Sahib Gurdwara in the COVID-hotspot of East Newton last week, Fraser Health employee Roman Bhangoo answered questions from about 100 members of the South Asian community about how and why to register for vaccination.

“It was actually really eye-opening to see how busy our tables were — for those who didn’t have a personal health number, including visitors in the province or those that are undocumented. … There’s fear there about getting into the (vaccination booking) system and not knowing what to do,” said Bhangoo, who is a program coordinator with Fraser Health’s South Asian Health Institute.

“A lot of people have not booked their vaccine due to their occupation. So if they’re a truck driver and they’re crossing the borders, they just don’t know when they will be in town, so they can’t really schedule anything. It was really nice that we met a lot of truck drivers that day … and we were actually able to get them to a vaccination clinic right away.”

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Fraser Health continues to have the highest concentration of COVID cases of B.C.’s five health authorities — on Thursday, it had 60 per cent of B.C.’s new cases, yet it represents just one-third of the provincial population — and the epicentre is Surrey.

To try to improve these numbers, the South Asian Health Institute has for months organized one outreach event each day, outside places of worship, Punjabi grocery stores, and South Asian plazas, mainly in Surrey but also in Abbotsford and Burnaby.

Last Friday at Dukh Nivaran, which had a vaccination clinic inside, Bhangoo and her team used iPads to help people get registered, answered questions, and handed out information in multiple languages.

Fraser health bulletin about how to wear masks with head coverings.
Fraser health bulletin about how to wear masks with head coverings.

“It’s so nice to see the non-traditional ways of reaching out to these communities. And we’re not asking people to come to health care — health care is going to them. We’ve seen that a lot of community members have been so grateful,” she said.

We booked someone that was 92 years old. She was born in 1929, and she still had not gotten her vaccine yet. So I think it’s just the comfort level, especially of being at a place of worship.”

Earlier this month, new data pinpointed hotspot neighbourhoods — such as Whalley, Newton, and Panorama — that have high case counts and corresponding low vaccination rates, where popup community vaccination clinics are now being held.

“Since the hotspots have been identified, we just made sure we did some more targeted outreach in those locations,” said Samantha Tong, the interim leader of the South Asian Health Institute. “And we’ve seen these events have been really helpful to reduce the barriers to get access to the vaccine.”

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Some communities were more at risk for the virus and faced corresponding challenges booking vaccines, for reasons that included being newcomers to Canada, not speaking English as a first language, living in multi-generational households, and working in low-paying essential-service jobs such as manufacturing or food services, said Dr. Victoria Lee, Fraser Health president.

As a result of the outreach efforts, “We’ve seen significant uptake in registration and, most importantly, significant uptake in immunizations. And we’re seeing a significant decrease in transmission and number of cases.”

At neighbourhood clinics this week at Surrey’s Bear Creek Park, which doesn’t require advanced appointments, more than 1,000 jabs were issued Monday and 1,300 on Tuesday, surpassing initial estimates. Lee said these clinics are reaching the target population, because between 85 and 96 per cent of patients were either unregistered with the provincial vaccination system or didn’t have appointments booked at regular clinics.

Fifteen per cent didn’t have a personal health number. They could still get vaccinated without one, and staff help them get a care card if they qualify, Lee said.

Two more Surrey neighbourhood clinics are scheduled for this weekend, and there are also clinics for people with booked appointments at gurdwaras and temples in Surrey, Burnaby and New Westminster over the next four days.

Nurses prepare syringes with Pfizer vaccine as people in the 30-and-older age group receive a Covid-19 vaccination from nurses at the Dukh Nivaran Sahib Gurdwara in Surrey, BC Friday, May 7, 2021.
Nurses prepare syringes with Pfizer vaccine as people in the 30-and-older age group receive a Covid-19 vaccination from nurses at the Dukh Nivaran Sahib Gurdwara in Surrey, BC Friday, May 7, 2021. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Fraser Health is working with South Asian independent schools, asking students to take information homes to parents, which has become even more important now that children 12 to 17 can register for the vaccine. Nearly half of school-aged children in B.C. live in Fraser Health, Lee said.

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“We’re delivering more than 20,000 vaccines each day. And we’ll have to do even more work coming up,” she said. “I think it’s been a historic effort to mobilize people and also to do what we have been doing to roll out immunizations. We’re basically running a medium- to large-sized hospital, in terms of staffing needs and resources, every single day.”

Health workers have also been able to address some major concerns in the South Asian community, such as hesitancy to take the AstraZeneca vaccine because of rare blood clots, or because its sister vaccine COVISHIELD is produced in India, Tong said.

Fraser Health is using WhatsApp, a popular communication tool in the South Asian community, to spread COVID-19 information in multiple languages, with the help of social media influencers, the business community, and others with a large number of contacts, Tong added.

Her team has connected with multiple businesses, including those involved with South Asian weddings, to get help sharing information about vaccination and COVID restrictions.

lculbert@postmedia.com

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