Northeast Calgary lags far behind provincial average for vaccinating kids

Northeast Calgary is falling behind when it comes to vaccinating kids against COVID-19, and more needs to be done to increase accessibility, advocates say. 

More must be done to improve access, advocates say

A child gets vaccinated at an Okaki pop-up clinic in Calgary. (Supplied by Okaki)

Northeast Calgary is falling behind when it comes to vaccinating kids against COVID-19, and more needs to be done to increase accessibility, advocates say. 

Low vaccine uptake for children among vulnerable Calgary families in the city's northeast was avoidable, says Anila Lee Yuen, president of the Centre for Newcomers and a member of the Alberta Vaccine Hesitancy Advisory Committee.

More widely, Alberta's child vaccination rates are among some of the lowest in the country. About 44 per cent of 5 to 11 year olds in Alberta have received one dose. But in the lower northeast Calgary area, it's roughly 28 per cent. 

Lee Yuen says there is a huge disparity in the number of vaccinated kids in the city's southwest versus the northeast.

"We knew that this was avoidable, had we put in right from the beginning some measures that would offset the barriers that parents are facing in terms of being able to get their children vaccinated," Lee Yuen said. 

She says issues around booking and shift work, transportation and language barriers hinder accessibility for some families. 

The vast majority of Alberta's pediatric vaccines are delivered through Alberta Health Services' clinics.

Lee Yuen says schools could create the easiest mechanism for vaccine rollout, but the province has repeatedly said no to such plans. However, Lee Yuen says vaccines could also be made available at pop-up clinics where people congregate and take their children — including grocery stores or places of worship. 

And she's been calling on the province to allow pediatric vaccination in doctors offices and pharmacies.

"It feels like a very slow process at the moment for something that could have been done a lot quicker," said Lee Yuen.

Efforts are underway to improve access for kids at a community level.

Beth Woytas, director of programs for Okaki, a private health organization partnered with AHS, the Aboriginal Friendship Centre and other groups to offer the vaccine to vulnerable Calgarians — including children — says the organization's mobile clinic has been going to places of worship and group homes. It's also involved in street outreach downtown.

"Actually we did have a clinic last week where we did a record breaking number of immunizations for both adults and children, and they've asked us to come back as quickly as possible," she said. 

The partnership involving Okaki is the only one AHS has for pediatric vaccine distribution. The program also has a standalone clinic. Together, the mobile and standalone clinics have provided the COVID-19 vaccine to 121 children between the ages of five and 11 since the end of November.

Woytas says having a fixed clinic on the CTrain line and offering evening appointments are two reasons the clinic has seen a "huge demand" for kids in this age group. 

"We do try to make it as accessible and as easy to get into as possible."

Referrals, she said, come from a variety of organizations including  the Mosaic Refuge Health Clinic, Calgary Homeless Foundation, the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, and the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary.

Each child gets to choose a stuffed animal when they arrive for their shot, cartoons are playing in the background to provide some distraction and appointments are given plenty of time so families don't feel rushed , according to Woytas.

"Families are able to book their appointments as a group and they can come in together as opposed to one at a time ... we just have the ability to create space for families to be comfortable," said Melissa Roy, director of operations with the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary.

"It's just really creating the space to cater to the family as opposed to the family having to cater to the process."

In a statement emailed to CBC News, the province said AHS public health nurses are specifically trained to immunize younger children.

"The rollout to children aged 5-11 is a smaller scale rollout than the vaccination campaign to date and is best managed through AHS's dedicated clinics as the core providers," the statement said.

Alberta Health said it is exploring ways to make the pediatric vaccine more accessible to children and parents.