COVID-19 vaccination rates among eastern European diaspora become cause for concern

With the deadline looming for Ontario long-term care workers to prove they're vaccinated against COVID-19, homes serving the Ukrainian-Canadian community are among those with the highest rates of unvaccinated staff.

One quarter of staff at long-term care homes serving Ukrainian-Canadians not fully vaccinated

While public health units in Ontario aren't tracking COVID-19 vaccination statistics specifically among people with eastern European backgrounds, doctors in Ontario are seeing a disproportionate number of patients from those communities getting sick from the virus. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

With the deadline looming for Ontario long-term care workers to prove they're vaccinated against COVID-19, homes serving the Ukrainian-Canadian community are among those with the highest rates of unvaccinated staff. 

It's part of a broader trend that's causing concern in hospitals and among public health officials: low vaccination rates among people of eastern European backgrounds. 

The latest available provincial data show 26 per cent of staff at the Ukrainian Canadian Care Centre and Ivan Franko Homes, both located in Etobicoke, were not fully vaccinated as of last month. The rate was more than two-and-a- half times the provincial average in the long-term care sector. 

That put the homes in the top 10 among Ontario's 626 long-term care facilities for the highest proportion of unvaccinated staff, according to data reported by the Ministry of Long-Term Care in early October. 

CBC News asked management at both homes to provide updated statistics, but neither responded to the request on Monday.   

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, families made banners in Ukrainian to try to boost the spirits of residents in the Ivan Franko Home in Etobicoke. (Christine Witowych)

Staff at all long-term care homes in Ontario must show proof by Nov. 15 that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have a valid medical exemption, otherwise they will be banned from working in the facilities.

Also among the homes with the highest rates of unvaccinated staff in the province were facilities serving the Lithuanian and Polish communities. One such home, Copernicus Lodge in Toronto's Roncesvalles neighbourhood, faced laying off 36 per cent of its staff when it imposed its own mandatory vaccination rule last month. 

While public health units aren't tracking COVID-19 vaccination statistics specifically among people with eastern European backgrounds, doctors are spotting some evidence of concern in the emergency rooms. 

"We have certainly seen a pattern, especially in the hospital and in our clinical work," said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases specialist and lecturer at the University of Toronto who practises in Mississauga. 

"Many individuals are coming from the eastern European community, this includes Ukrainian, Polish, the former Yugoslavia as well as Russian," said Chakrabarti in an interview. 

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti is an infectious diseases physician in Mississauga and a lecturer at the University of Toronto's medical school. (CBC)

Some public health experts and some community leaders say the experience of living under totalitarian regimes in the former Soviet bloc contributes to vaccine hesitancy in the eastern European diaspora in Canada. 

"I've heard a lot of stories [from unvaccinated patients] that have very similar types of themes, such as being forcibly vaccinated, or just having a general mistrust of the government, and that those feelings can translate over to here," Chakrabarti said. 

However some leaders in the Ukrainian-Canadian community are casting doubt on the theory that distrust of government is driving vaccine hesitancy. 

"We've heard that from people, from our community leaders who grew up under Soviet rule," said Ihor Michalchyshyn, chief executive officer of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. 

"That certainly is reflective of the kind of the kind of relationship that the Soviet government had with its citizens in terms of imposing various kinds of measures and restricting freedoms," Michalchyshyn said in an interview. "But I don't get the sense that that's a widespread issue at this point."

People wait at a COVID-19 vaccination centre in a shopping mall in Kyiv, Ukraine on Oct. 27. The country has recently reported record numbers of COVID-19 cases. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which represents the estimated 1.5 million Canadians of Ukrainian background, has led efforts to disseminate the facts about COVID-19 vaccines in the community's language. 

"Translation of key posters, key materials, key videos ... television, radio, print, we've done everything that we can think of to get the information into people's hands," said Michalchyshyn. 

In recent days, Ukraine reported a record daily number of new COVID-19 infections, a phenomenon driven by one of Europe's lowest vaccination rates.   

In Ontario, the Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips acknowledged that some homes serving eastern European communities have below-average vaccination rates among staff. 

"All of those homes have taken a number of steps, some in cooperation with us, some directly bringing in doctors, medical professionals, and in one case, former Olympic athletes to talk to staff and communicate to them about the value of the vaccine and the safety of the vaccine," Phillips told reporters Monday at Queen's Park. 

Every long-term care home in Ontario is required to report its staff vaccination rates to the ministry this week, and the government will post those figures publicly in the second week of November.

Phillips said the cross-Ontario figures in early October showed 94 per cent of long-term care staff had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 90 per cent were fully vaccinated. 


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.


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