British Columbia

Pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinics are inequitable, say some Fraser Health doctors

Fraser Health puts pop-up vaccine clinics on hold after complaints of confused messages and an inequitable vaccine rollout from some doctors in the area.

No more last-minute clinics planned after doctors, public slam poor communication

Hundreds of people waited to get COVID-19 Pfizer vaccinations made available for people 18 years or older during a pop-up clinic at the Newton Athletic Park in Surrey, B.C. on Tuesday. Many were disappointed when supplies ran out. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Pop-up vaccine clinics this week in Fraser Health created confusion, frustration and resulted in an inequitable vaccine rollout at a crucial time in the COVID-19 pandemic, some doctors in the region say.

Within the span of 48 hours, thousands of people were vaccinated, while many were disappointed and upset. 

The  pop-up clinics are cancelled, according to Dr. Victoria Lee, the president of Fraser Health, who said Thursday the health authority learned from the experience.

When official information was hard to come by, word of mouth and social media led people to believe anyone could be vaccinated if they lined up at clinics at Newton Athletic Park in Surrey and Poirier Forum in Coquitlam. Tempers flared in Surrey when people were turned away after standing in line for hours, sometimes seeing people who did not live in the hot-spot neighbourhoods get a vaccine. 

Watching all of this unfold has been extremely frustrating for Dr. Keerat Sidhu.

She has close family members, including her parents who live in Surrey, who have not been vaccinated and were patiently waiting to be called after registering for their turn. 

Sidhu, who works in Fraser Health, said she felt stressed and anxious because it became apparent to her that access to the vaccine clinics are not equitable.

Critics argue pop-up clinics, like this one in Cloverdale on Thursday, put shift workers, people of colour and people with disabilities at a disadvantage. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"These clinics are favouring people who have the means and the time to get in the car, drive to these vaccination centres, wait for hours for a vaccine," she said. "All at the expense those essential workers, who can't just get up and leave their jobs at a moment's notice, or not able-bodied and can't stand for four-plus hours in a line."

Dr. Birinder Narang, who also works as a family physician in Fraser Health, agreed these clinics put people of colour and people with disabilities at a disadvantage.

Despite the frustration, both doctors said people who got vaccinated, despite not being residents of these hot spot communities, should not be blamed.

"It's not exactly queue jumping, because there is enormous interest and if an opportunity is presented, you can't fault them for that," Sidhu said. "But that doesn't mean it was equitable."

A mother breastfeeds her child while waiting in line to receive her COVID-19 vaccine during a pop-up clinic at the Poirier Forum in Coquitlam on Tuesday. Lineups can be challenging for people who are not able-bodied, argue some doctors and advocates. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The long lineups show that the South Asian community in B.C. is just as eager to put this pandemic behind them, says Sidhu. That's important because members of the community were blamed for driving up COVID-19 cases in Fraser Health in the province's third wave. 

Despite that, both doctors say very little communication was targeted at the South Asian community.

Sidhu says some seniors in the lines in the  Newton area of Surrey didn't speak English and had to rely on younger family members or good Samaritans to translate for them. 

Both doctors says if the goal was to target hot-spot neighbourhoods, then details should have been available in various languages.

Province acknowledges mistakes

In the regular provincial COVID briefing on Thursday, health officials acknowledged the criticism.

"I'm not sure I would call it a vaccine free-for-all, but absolutely, we are concerned about the way they rolled out," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. "I absolutely apologize to people for the miscommunications and for the confusion."

She says the intent was to reach people in those communities who have not registered for the vaccine through the province's online "Get Vaccinated" portal.

She also said people should not be travelling outside of their communities to get vaccinated.

Watch B.C.'s provincial health officer address the pop-up clinic rollout.

Dr. Henry responds to criticism of pop-up vaccine clinics

1 year ago
Duration 1:25
Many were left angry and disappointed after leaving without a vaccine, even after waiting for hours, at a pop-up vaccine clinic in Surrey on April 28, 2021.

Mistrust created

Narang said the intent of the pop-up clinics to deliver more vaccines is good, but the communication breakdown created a lack of trust. It also puts health-care workers like himself in an awkward position, where they too could potentially spread misinformation. 

"How I am supposed to tell my patients where to go, what age should get vaccinated, when the information isn't coming from a clear source."

Sidhu also said health-care workers at these pop-up clinics can't be expected to check postal codes, and become gatekeepers. That responsibility, she says, lies with Fraser Health, which should have clearly communicated who was eligible for a vaccination and when.

"It can't be a free for all."

With files from the Canadian Press