British Columbia

Aggressive vaccination strategy paying off as Vancouver's DTES achieves 'significant herd immunity'

Fewer COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood because enough people have been vaccinated to reach local herd immunity, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.

Vaccinations started on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in January

Nurses administer COVID-19 vaccinations to at-risk people in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

So many people have been vaccinated in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood that the community has begun to achieve significant local herd immunity, according to experts from Vancouver Coastal Health.

The campaign to vaccinate one of the city's most vulnerable populations began in earnest in January

Dr. Althea Hayden, a medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, said the Downtown Eastside was prioritized for vaccination early on — along with other shared settings like jails and long-term care facilities — because these are settings where people can't effectively isolate from each other. 

"People in those settings are at the highest risk of both contracting and transmitting COVID-19," Hayden said. 

"And so, that means when COVID is introduced, far more people get sick. Also because of underlying health conditions or risk conditions, folks are much more likely to be severely ill or hospitalized or to die."

In fact, she said, people who got COVID who were residents of the Downtown Eastside were about four times more likely to be hospitalized than people in the general population.

A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccination to at-risk people in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Teams used a variety of different approaches to vaccinating the community, including mass clinics as well as smaller, targeted campaigns.

Sharon Janzen, a nurse and clinical co-ordinator for the Downtown Eastside vaccination campaign, said working with community groups and non-profits as well as campaigning with flyers and notices was key to reaching members of the community. 

Their guiding philosophy was to go where the community was — into SROs, on the street, or via mobile unit. 

"We sort of go in and make ourselves available either right in the building or ... we pop up in the street, you know. We roll up the mobile van, and we take out tables, chairs and set up a mini clinic," Janzen said. 

"We've worked really hard to establish relationships and trust and make sure that everyone feels like they're receiving good information and that the vaccine is safe."

Janzen said that they've managed to provide everyone their first dose and will begin delivering second doses, as well as reaching anyone they may have missed in the coming weeks.

Dr. Hayden said they want to shine a spotlight on this success story because of the other public health crisis gripping the community — the opioid crisis.

She says the COVID-19 pandemic has made people afraid to seek out services that they need. 

"People have avoided going in-person to the doctor and the Downtown Eastside, and I think broadly in our community, people have avoided going to supervised consumption sites or overdose prevention sites, and as a result, we've seen 474 people die of overdose in 2020 compared to 285 in 2019. It's a tragedy," she said.

The community also serves as an example of the importance of vaccines, she added.

"Where we have achieved a high level of vaccine coverage, the community truly is protected. I'm very hopeful that that represents our future in the broader community," Hayden said. 

"We just need to get through these next couple of months."

Listen to the segment on CBC's On The Coast:

Dr. Althea Hayden, medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, and Sharon Janzen, a nurse and clinical coordinator for the Downtown Eastside vaccination campaign, discuss how herd immunity to COVID-19 was reached there. 10:26

With files from On The Coast

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