Park Ex community groups scrambling to get most vulnerable vaccinated

Community groups say they need help from the government to reach and vaccinate vulnerable populations, like asylum seekers, who are often toiling in essential workplaces prone to outbreaks.

Community members band together to help vaccinate asylum seekers but want government to do more

Juan Carlos Chirgwin is a family doctor at the CLSC Parc-Extension. He has been working with community groups in the area to make sure asylum seekers get access to COVID-19 vaccines. (Radio-Canada)

The Thursday evening before the Easter weekend, Dr. Juan Carlos Chirgwin was sitting in a meeting with other community workers in Parc-Extension that began to make him nervous. 

An official at the health board overseeing the area told the group she had 150 extra vaccine doses to split between their neighbourhood and one other.

Dr. Chirgwin, the family physician at the Parc Extension CLSC, had been hoping more doses would be made available for the local population. 

Though a mass vaccination clinic exists at the new Université de Montréal campus, it takes only online appointments.

His public clinic hosts a smaller more community-oriented vaccination operation in its basement but it nearly closed several times because of the uncertainty over whether it could receive doses to fill appointments.

Without a consistent schedule, it was hard to get the word out to often unilingual immigrant communities with little to no internet access.

So, a bounty of doses was welcome, but there was one issue:  They had only until Monday to find enough people to give them to, with a holiday weekend starting.

"It was a bit nerve-wracking thinking that we would have vaccines that definitely could be used, but that might go to another neighbourhood [if we didn't find enough people in time]," Chirgwin said.

The situation is an example of how a patchwork of passionate community members can help fill gaps in access, but also of the disconnect that can exist between governments and what happens on the ground. 

The health board official, Dr. Chirgwin and the other community workers at the meeting agreed the vaccines should go to the community's most vulnerable, which meant asylum seekers. 

But their precarious status and lack of consistent access to internet or cellphones, as well as significant linguistic barriers presented a challenge. 

The group managed to scramble dozens of names together by Monday, with nurses knocking on doors to fill no-show appointments as the vaccines' expiration time approached.

'A marathon' to get asylum seekers vaccinated

"It was really close. We had to find 84 people in two days. We ran in all directions, we did everything we could. We did it but it really was a marathon," said Meryem Ouadban, the co-ordinator of the Park Ex Community Roundtable.

Ouadban and Dr. Chirgwin say they are happy their efforts were successful but they fear having to do it again, without a sustained effort from the provincial government to focus on vulnerable populations, like asylum seekers, who are often toiling in essential workplaces prone to outbreaks.

Meryem Ouadban, the co-ordinator at the Parc-Extension neighbourhood roundtable, said the group's efforts were like 'a marathon' to get asylum seekers vaccinated when the local health board provided extra doses. (Submitted by Meryem Ouadban)

They fear that with vaccination eligibility moving to younger groups and people working essential jobs, more asylum seekers will fall through the cracks.

"They might also be hard to reach out to because they might be absent from home when we make those calls about vaccines," Dr. Chirgwin said. 

Lack of health-care access in Park Ex

Parc-Extension, known to many Montrealers as Park Ex, is one of the most diverse and densely populated neighbourhoods in Canada.

It's hard to know exactly how many asylum seekers live there but the area is popular with newcomers thanks to its cultural communities and traditionally low rents, now threatened by gentrification. 

Jhanzaib Sherwani, who helped found Clinique Parc-X, says there is a dearth of primary health care in Parc-Extension. (Submitted by Jhanzaib Sherwani)

Dr. Jhanzaib Sherwani, who helped found the privately-operated Clinique Parc-X, sees asylum seekers at his clinic. He provided the group with a list of names to reach out to. 

His clinic is one of the only clinics in the neighbourhood to provide walk-in primary care since 2018, when the CLSC had to restrict the number of new patients it accepted.

Sherwani has been pushing for more primary care physicians in the area, calling for more permits to be allotted every year. 

"Knowing how important it is, we banded together and we worked hard. And maybe it's more of a testament to how we feel about how poor the access [to health care] is and how marginalized our population is," Sherwani said. 

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