Ottawa

Vaccine confusion hurting vulnerable Ottawans the most, say community health centres

Ottawa's vaccine rollout has left many of the most vulnerable residents struggling to get immunized, particularly if they're not technologically savvy, according to some workers with the city's community health centres. 

Centre workers are going door-to-door, calling people, trying to help

Kelli Tonner, executive director of the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre, says her teams have been going door-to-door spreading information about how to receive a vaccination. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Ottawa's vaccine rollout has left many of the city's most vulnerable residents struggling to get immunized, particularly if they're not technologically savvy, according to some workers with the city's community health centres. 

"There's chaos," said Dr. Alison Eyre, who works at the Centretown Community Health Centre and teaches at the University of Ottawa. 

"Those people who are adept at computers, who can hear well on the telephone, often can get access to vaccines."

As of last Thursday, about 600,000 vaccine doses had been administered in the wider Ottawa-Gatineau region, which has a population of roughly 2.3 million.

While equity has been a key aim during the vaccine rollout, Eyre said many vulnerable people have difficulty navigating the systems required to secure an appointment.

She said staff at her health centre have spent huge amounts of time trying to sign up clients, which can be especially time-consuming if no family member is present to help out.

Confusion leads to hesitancy

When you mix in the confusion — for instance, the multiple methods of booking those appointments — it can lead to uneasiness about the vaccination itself, she added.

"And when you have vaccine hesitancy along with confusion, it does mean that vulnerable groups have had troubles accessing the vaccine," Eyre said.

The province recently lowered the minimum age for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to people turning 40 this year, but when vaccinations are opened up to new groups, Eyre said it doesn't equate to more vaccines — just that more people can book appointments.

Eyre's hopeful that by mid-May the supply will increase.

Kelli Tonner, executive director of the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre, said her team has heard similar complaints. 

"It's challenging to understand eligibility," she told CBC Radio's All In A Day. "Am I ready now? Can I have it now? It's challenging around the booking process. Do I call? Is it online? How do I navigate these things?"

Her team has also gone door-to-door, having conversations and sharing COVID-19 vaccination information in different languages and calling those eligible to help them book appointments.

Kelli Tonner from the Executive Director, South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre talks about how community health centres are bringing the vaccine to its clients. 10:56

'People are very concerned'

"In some cases, when the client gives us permission, we will book appointments for them if we're able to," she said. "And more importantly, we are trying to bring the resources to them in their communities."

When they're out knocking on doors, it's not so much resistance to the vaccine her team sees, Tonner said.

Rather, people are looking to discuss the pros and cons of vaccines to help build their confidence, she said, while some family members have delayed appointments so they all can go together.

Many essential workers are also unable to sit behind the computer all day and monitor when an appointment opens up, she said. That's why the city's community health centres have been hard at work, trying to provide assistance, Tonner said.

"I think people are very concerned. They don't want to miss their opportunity."

With files from CBC's Matthew Kupfer and All In A Day

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