Overcrowded Iqaluit shelters call vaccination clinics a 'stress relief'

Vaccination clinics start Monday in Iqaluit for at-risk groups, including seniors age 65 and over, and people who live in or work at shelters, where staff say social distancing is nearly impossible. 

Social distancing a struggle in busy Iqaluit shelters for men and women, directors say

One building used as a men's shelter in Iqaluit. Vaccination clinics start Monday and run all week for anyone who lives in or works at a shelter. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Vaccination clinics start Monday in Iqaluit for at-risk groups, including seniors age 65 and over, and people who live in or work at shelters. 

There are four shelters in Iqaluit, a men's shelter, women's shelter, a family violence shelter and a coed overnight shelter for people who are intoxicated. 

While public health restrictions are being followed at all the shelters, staff say social distancing is nearly impossible.

"There's a lot of overcrowding in the shelter, and we have people that frequent public places throughout the day and then come back," said Erika Alexander, program manager for the Uquutaq Society that runs the men's shelter and the overnight shelter. 

During lockdown periods, there were more people inside the shelter during the day, wearing masks or face shields in common areas, Alexander said.

"Some of the residents usually go out into the community, whether they are visiting or frequenting public places, but during the lockdown when everything was closed it increased the over crowding that we had at the shelter," she said. 

There are around 80 clients and staff between the two shelters who are eligible to be vaccinated this week at public health clinics. 

Clients are using the shelter phones to make appointments to go on their own. Alexander said some have said they want the vaccine, and others say they don't.

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is board chair for Y.W.C.A Agvvik Nunavut, the society that runs two women's shelters in Iqaluit. Many staff and clients have said they want to be vaccinated, she said. (David Donnelly/CBC)

At the two women's shelters, between 40 and 50 staff and residents are eligible for vaccination. 

Because of the distance, anyone who signs up will be driven to public health in groups of ten, says Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, board chair for Y.W.C.A Agvvik Nunavut, the society that runs the women's shelters. Arnaquq-Baril said both the women's shelter and the family violence shelter are at of over capacity most of the time.

She says the vaccine is a stress relief for people who are already vulnerable, and that most women at the shelter have said they want to get the vaccine.

"It's really difficult to be in a lockdown when you're in close quarters with multiple families and staff coming in and out, so anything we can do to avoid being in that situation again. I think the clients are aware that it's in all of our best interests to get vaccinated," Arnaquq-Baril said.

Women and children living at the shelters are from Iqaluit and from other communities in Nunavut. 

Improved attitude toward vaccine

Last week and on Monday, staff from Iqaluit Public Health visited all the shelters to answer questions.

"It's outside of what we do to be health experts, and we don't want to be perceived as forcing anybody to do anything. We feel like it's a better role for health to be talking to people about the facts," said director for the women's shelters Sherri Robertson. 

She says now that clinics are happening in communities and health officials are sharing more information about vaccination, she has seen the attitudes clients and staff have about the vaccine change from worried or reluctant to being much more positive.

For staff who get vaccinated, it will be a relief to know they won't be the ones passing on the virus to others, she said. 

"We're all going to be happy not to be worried about people we know who have compromised health conditions," she said. 

Vaccination clinics are at Iqaluit Public Health Monday through Friday from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., and at the hospital on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

To make an appointment, call Iqaluit Public Health at 867-979-4810.

A vaccination clinic starts in Rankin Inlet also on Monday. Another community clinic starts Tuesday in Whale Cove followed by one in Chesterfield Inlet on Friday. Next week, Baker Lake will have vaccinations for priority groups.

The Nunavut government is reporting 2,141 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the territory as of Monday morning.