Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Slow vaccine response for newcomers in Maritimes shows 'cracks' in pandemic response

The push to get new immigrants vaccinated in the Maritime provinces is well underway, but some support groups say it’s been a slow process. A former N.S. deputy chief health officer says pandemic planning sessions that would have prepared for such needs have not happened in recent years.

Timely access to vaccines a matter of equity, says newcomer support group

A clinic volunteer at the Ummah mosque in Halifax takes a driver's information during a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for immigrants on June 19, 2021. (Haley Ryan/CBC)

Sudanese refugee Fatima Shaa Aldin spent most of this spring waiting and worrying about when her family could get the COVID-19 vaccine.

And while the stress of isolation has been common for many during the pandemic, she faced a language barrier on top of that. Shaa Aldin has been learning English since she arrived in Halifax 18 months ago, but she still relies on information written and spoken in Arabic. 

"I was very worried and frightened, like, what is going to happen?" she told CBC News through an interpreter. 

Shaa Aldin lives with her mother, who has health issues, as well as her daughter and sister. She said in early June, she got a call from a settlement worker at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), offering to help them get vaccinated.

"We felt relief after ISANS contacted us and followed up with us. We were so grateful," said Shaa Aldin.

Fatima Shaa Aldin, 45, arrived in Halifax as a refugee from Sudan just before the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. She worried about how and when her family could access the coronavirus vaccine until a settlement outreach worker called her in early June. (David Laughlin/CBC)

The worker helped book appointments for the women, arrange transportation and ensure that an interpreter was available on site.

The push to get new immigrants vaccinated in the Maritime provinces is well underway, but some support groups say it's been a slow process. For example, even though all Nova Scotians 70 years and older were eligible to book their vaccine April 1, Shaa Aldin's mother, Hawa Eisa Shuaib Ahmed, who is 70 years old, didn't get hers until two months later.

Big needs for translations, interpreters

Support groups say the backlog stems from the need to have materials translated into various languages, along with organizing interpreters to help inform newcomers about the latest vaccine information.

CBC requested vaccine statistics for immigrants, refugees and migrant workers in all three Maritime provinces, but was told that data is not consistently tracked.

"Vaccine data is reported on a population basis. It is private health information," said Nova Scotia government spokesperson Heather Fairbairn in an emailed statement. "Information on race/ethnicity is collected on a voluntary basis."

Ginette Gautreau, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council, said newcomers who aren't fluent or literate in English or French deserve extra support.

Fatima Shaa Aldin, not pictured, her mother, Hawa Eisa Shuaib Ahmed, 70, and daughter Maza Salih, 16, arrived in Halifax 18 months ago. (Submitted by Fatima Shaa Aldin)

"Making sure that they have access to the same information in their language and they know what the risks are and what they are consenting to is critically important," she said.

The New Brunswick Multicultural Council recently received a federal grant for communication materials, as well as help from the province to translate consent forms into a dozen languages. However, Gautreau said it would have been more useful back in February or March.

"It's a matter of equity, it's a matter of justice and making sure they have access to the same quality of health-care services," she said.

Groups say Maritime immigrants deserve better vaccine support

4 months ago
4:27
Some immigrants only got their vaccine two months after they became eligible. Advocates say there's a translation backlog, among other issues. 4:27

According to Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, who stepped down in March from her position as Nova Scotia's deputy chief medical officer of health, this is one example of where the cracks in Canada's pandemic response could be starting to show.

She said most public health units, including in the Maritimes, held pandemic training sessions around the time of SARS, but those exercises and conversations faltered to the point of non-existence in recent years.

"These are some of the consequences," she said. "Those things that seem like mundane exercises, like relationship building with your local NGO partners, they become a real need when you're in the middle of an emergency.

Jennifer Watts, CEO of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), says helping newcomers get vaccinated has been a 'duty of care' for her organization. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"We had these conversations. We had these planning scenarios. You know, so from that perspective we could have been more ready. We could have had translation processes ready to go to meet the needs of the various populations that you know are going to be there, and it's not like those language needs change or go away over time."

She points to local public health units in Toronto and the Peel, Ont., region, which she said have done an excellent job at fostering community relationships and responding quickly to critical needs.

ISANS in Halifax serves 9,400 clients, in addition to groups outside of the city, while the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada has about 4,000 clients. New Brunswick has reported approximately 9,500 new immigrants since 2019.

Support groups push for action

While none of the organizations CBC spoke to complained about lack of government support, most acknowledged they sought resources to help newcomers access vaccinations, whether it be funding, translation services or organizing clinics.

Tracey Barbrick, the associate deputy health minister in charge of Nova Scotia's vaccine rollout, says targeted efforts are being made to reach newcomers.

"We have been very focused since the beginning of the vaccine rollout in ensuring equity across the province and that we make sure everyone has the opportunity to get vaccinated," she told CBC News. 

"So we've worked closely with ISANS, recognizing their leadership role with newcomers in the province, and they have supported people connected to their programs with getting booked in for vaccines."

Barbrick adds that in an ideal world, the province could have used more planning time.

The New Brunswick government said it's working with local organizations to book vaccine appointments and organize clinics.

And Health PEI has focused on translating documents into eight languages, which are now available at vaccine clinics.

Duty of care

At ISANS in Halifax, CEO Jennifer Watts says her team has been working tirelessly to directly contact about 700 clients they've identified as vulnerable, such as Shaa Aldin. The goal is to educate them about the vaccine and available booking options.

"When we have a community situation such as a pandemic, we really take it upon ourselves as understanding that this is a duty of care that we have as an organization, that we need to step up," she said.

"It's really important to make that personal contact and check in with people and say, 'Hey, you know we're here, we want to make sure you understand this and if you need any support, how can we help you in making a decision that is informed and that you can act on?'"

It's a service that Shaa Aldin appreciated.

"I'm very happy. I'm very relieved."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela MacIvor is CBC Nova Scotia's investigative reporter. She has been with CBC since 2006 as a reporter and producer in all three Maritime provinces. All news tips welcome. Send an email to cbcnsinvestigates@cbc.ca

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