Vaccine remains out of reach for many in COVID-19 'hot spot'
Emerald Woods has 2nd-highest infection rate in Ottawa
Michael Brisson hasn't been vaccinated against COVID-19, but it hasn't been for lack of trying.
The 66-year-old lives in Emerald Woods, the neighbourhood with Ottawa's second-highest rate of COVID-19. Tucked just south of Bank Street and Hunt Club Road, local landmarks include a mosque, a Shawarma Station and Sawmill Creek Elementary School, named after the narrow stream that flows through the community.
The neighbourhood falls within the K1T postal code, and has therefore been designated by the province as a COVID-19 "hot spot," where since last week residents as young as 50 have been eligible to receive a dose at one of the city's public vaccination clinics.
But when Brisson, who doesn't own a computer, tried calling Ottawa Public Health (OPH) last week to book an appointment, he gave up after waiting nearly an hour on the phone.
"I've gone to several pharmacies nearby, and they don't provide the service. And they're telling me, 'Well, go online, go online," Brisson said. "Well, I don't have online."
Already at high risk due to his age, Brisson lives in a 12-storey apartment building where he said not everyone keeps their distance, especially in the elevator.
Brisson doesn't own a car, and said even if he had been able to book an appointment, it would take him an hour to get to the nearest OPH vaccination clinic by bus.
"I don't have time and it's inconvenient," he said.
Immigrants, single parents
According to the Ottawa Neighborhood Study, 51 per cent of the 5,600 people who call Emerald Woods are racialized, predominantly immigrants and refugees. Five per cent don't speak English or French, and the median annual income is less than $25,000.
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One-quarter of the neighbourhood's residents are single parents, many with school-age children who are suddenly home indefinitely.
Sumaiya Hirsi, 11, hasn't attended class since March 29, when her entire Grade 5 class at Sawmill Creek Elementary School was sent home after two students tested positive for COVID-19.
Hirsi, who shares a four-bedroom rowhouse on Bridle Path Drive with her mother, her aunt and four older siblings, worried about infecting her family.
"I had to stay upstairs until I got my test [results] back. I could have infected my mom and her daycare. My siblings all work," said Hirsi, who normally shares a bed with her mother, a child-care worker.
Stephanie Mitra, 33, who has lived in Emerald Woods for four years, said the neighbourhood's high infection rate comes as no surprise to her.
"I think there are a lot of younger and ... essential workers, people who don't necessarily have sick leave or even have the ability to stay home," Mitra observed.
Mosque steps in
OPH said it's using neighborhood census data to improve access to vaccines for residents who have been disproportionately affected by the virus, and in the case of Emerald Woods, has enlisted the help of the neighbourhood mosque.
Masjid ar-Rahmah — the Mosque of Mercy — has previously hosted virtual seminars with doctors to answer residents' questions and concerns, and is currently a COVID-19 testing site. Now, in a neighbourhood with no community health centre of its own, the mosque will become a vaccination site during the holy month of Ramadan.
Hindia Mohamoud, executive director of the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership, said that's the kind of initiative that will get results, because people in the city's hardest-hit neighbourhoods are often least likely to have the time or resources to get vaccinated.
"The focus on hot spots doesn't necessarily result in vaccination of the most vulnerable," Mohamoud said. "We have to bring the vaccination to them."
With files from Jamie Long