When Michael Leland got a call at 9:30 on Friday morning telling him he could get a COVID-19 vaccination, the 62-year-old didn’t hesitate.
“I was there by 9:45,” the Downtown Eastside resident told The Tyee.
Residents and advocates have feared an outbreak of COVID-19 in the neighbourhood, because so many people have pre-existing health conditions and live in deep poverty in crowded housing with shared washrooms and kitchens.
While Vancouver Coastal Health said in late December that COVID-19 cases in the Downtown Eastside were holding steady, sources told The Tyee that cases have recently begun to rise in the neighbourhood, with 40 cases detected this week.
Vancouver Coastal has been vaccinating people at some sites in the Downtown Eastside, but said it was “scaling up” the vaccination clinics starting Friday.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday the province had given priority to vaccinations in the neighbourhood after an increase in cases, especially in shelters.
“We have transmission in some of our shelters, in Fraser Health in Surrey and in Vancouver in the Downtown Eastside,” Henry said. “We know in those situations people get much sicker and are more likely to end up in hospital, so we are doing some targeted immunization in those communities.”
Henry added some of the Downtown Eastside cases appear to be related at ongoing outbreaks at St. Paul’s Hospital. “People who live in the Downtown Eastside, when they get sick, they often go to St. Paul’s,” she said.
The clinics at four sites — Pender Community Clinic, the Carnegie Centre, Downtown Community Health Centre and Union Gospel Mission — were open to people who are unhoused or live in shelters, SRO buildings or supportive housing.
“With the dual health emergencies of the pandemic and the overdose crisis, this community is especially vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19,” the health authority said in a notice to organizations that work in the neighbourhood.
“We have seen clusters of COVID-19 cases in congregate settings such as shelters and SROs, and there is a higher risk of onward transmission in housing where physical distancing is difficult.”
Brianne De Man, the manager of the Binners’ Project, said she got word Thursday evening at 8 p.m. that the vaccine clinics would be open on Friday. She and her staff quickly got to work, phoning members who mostly live in privately owned SROs. Many people who live in publicly run SROs or shelters have already gotten the first dose of the vaccine, De Man said.
De Man said most people were eager to get the vaccine, although a few were more hesitant.
“There’s some skepticism, but I think what was really impactful about our experience this morning is the evidence that community groups like ours and the trust that we have with members and the community goes a long way,” De Man said.
Leland said the process of getting the vaccine was relatively simple and painless — much less uncomfortable, he said, than getting tested for COVID-19.
Leland has a pacemaker and blood clots in his heart and recently had to go to St. Paul’s Hospital to get his pacemaker replaced. St. Paul’s has dealt with several COVID-19 outbreaks, including in it its cardiac department, and Leland said he was nervous about having to go to hospital.
The Tyee has asked Vancouver Coastal Health if more vaccination clinics are planned for the Downtown Eastside and will update this story when we get a response.
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