As Canada’s vaccination campaign intensifies, people at higher risk of transmitting COVID-19 often lack the resources to navigate labyrinthine reservation systems or documentation that would ease their path to vaccination.
People without provincial health insurance, such as asylum seekers or undocumented workers, often have frontline jobs or live in neighborhoods that put them at high risk of infection. Immunization of this population is essential to tackle the crushing third wave of the pandemic in Canada, epidemiologists have said.
But a recent study from Toronto’s ICES – formerly known as the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences – found that vaccination rates are lower among immigrants, refugees and newcomers to the provincial health care system.
Twenty-two percent of refugees received at least one dose of the vaccine, as did 12% of recent provincial health care plan registrants, well below the 38% of Canadian-born and long-term residents, according to the study.
The study did not examine people who did not have provincial health insurance.
Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, does not require people to have provincial health insurance to qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine. But it can be extremely difficult for people without a health card to sign up for a vaccine.
Nurse Shazmah Hussein spends two full days of her week working on the phone and helping people navigate vaccine registrations at the Crossroads Refugee Clinic in Toronto. On a typical day, she said she could help 17 people sign up for photos after being referred from one phone number or website to another.
It may take 15 minutes to register for a shot for someone with OHIP. For people without health coverage, it can take 45 minutes, even for someone familiar with the system who is fluent in English.
“They cried on the phone and said, ‘Thank you very much, you are my angel,’” Hussein said. “I don’t think I did anything special. But just because they had such a hard time navigating… it makes me feel like I’ve moved a mountain. “
Reuters called 20 pharmacies in Toronto and neighboring Peel that offered vaccines. Seven said they needed health cards. Even within a single retail chain, there were variations in what a person needed to get the vaccine.
Loblaw Co Ltd (L.TO), which owns Shoppers Drug Mart, told Reuters that a health card was not required and “we have done our best to clarify the criteria with the stores. “
Toronto announced Friday that it is partnering with community organizations to help people without provincial health coverage register for a vaccine.
Byron Cruz, an advocate for Sanctuary Health in Vancouver, said people without valid visas and other documents have avoided signing up for a vaccine for fear of exposing themselves to immigration authorities.
A spokesperson for the BC Ministry of Health said information “provided to public health for the purposes of the immunization plan will not be shared with other organizations.”
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health said the province would adhere to privacy legislation, but made no commitment not to share the information with immigration authorities .
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