Saskatchewan’s vaccine effort is split across class lines, with poor neighbourhoods in large cities left under-protected in one of Canada’s hardest-hit provinces.
Data from the Saskatchewan Health Authority shows swaths of Saskatoon’s west side and Regina’s north central neighbourhoods lag behind their neighbours, a gap health officials spent months and countless hours trying to close.
Non-profit partners say they’re wrestling with a combination of deep socioeconomic inequality and resistance to vaccination fed by conspiracy theories and mistrust of the medical system.
“I don’t think this is a lack of effort,” Prairie Harm Reduction executive director Jason Mercredi said. “I just think this is a notoriously hard population to engage with.”
PHR is one of many non-profits partnered with the SHA to increase uptake in Saskatoon’s Pleasant Hill neighbourhood. The SHA hosts regular vaccination clinics, cruised through the neighbourhood in a mobile vaccine bus and even considered hosting a barbecue with PHR to drive uptake; Mercredi said the barbecue never materialized before the first snow fell.
A map shared by the SHA last week shows Pleasant Hill and nearby areas in Saskatoon have a first-dose uptake rate of 70 to 79 per cent, while most of Saskatoon is at 80 per cent and higher. The SHA refused to provide a more detailed breakdown.
The disparity is clearer in Regina, where the area including North Central has a full vaccination rate in the 50 to 60 per cent range, lower than every other part of the city. All Nations Hope Network community health director Melanie Kingston said that’s partially due to socioeconomic barriers.
“A lot of people in North Central don’t have vehicles, so they don’t have transportation to get anywhere. A lot of people in North Central are on assistance or homeless or coach surfing. They don’t have a bus pass,” Kingston said.
Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab has warned that undervaccinated areas may be vulnerable over the winter as Saskatchewan eyes recovery from a devastating fourth wave.
“Our strategy has moved to a more micro strategy, where we are really looking at community by community — very small geographies, and really understanding who lives in those communities and how can we break through some of those barriers,” SHA vaccine chief Sheila Anderson said.
Health Minister Paul Merriman said a recent shipment of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which require one dose, will be partially targeted toward shelters and congregate living settings for that reason. He added the ministry is working actively to dispel myths about vaccines that are shown to be safe and effective.
“We understand a lot of these community members are not connected into social media or mainstream media, so that’s why we’re trying to work with community organizations at the ground level,” Merriman said.
Mercredi said door-to-door efforts or cash incentives should be considered to boost uptake; the non-profit has offered cash a limited basis using outside grants.
“When we have incentives for folks, whether it’s $10 or $20, a lot of folks who are vulnerable will come down, get their honorarium, and get vaccinated,” Mercredi said.
Dr. Morris Markentin said he has found success at the Westside Community Clinic in Saskatoon by offering vaccination whenever patients come in for anything else. He said health teams have even made trips outside the clinic to offer the shot at specific housing complexes.
He has also been yelled at, he said, and told he’ll be put on trial for offering the vaccine. That kind of treatment has demoralized many of his peers after nearly two years of the pandemic, he said.
“I’ve been in the hospital, and it’s scary what’s happened. I can’t believe the teams working in the hospital. They’re doing amazing work in there, but the population doesn’t see that. They think it’s a farce, and it’s not.”
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