More than 250 Indigenous individuals received COVID-19 vaccinations last week as part of a new culturally aware program at the Western Fair Agriplex clinic in London, Ont.
Culturally aware care, officials say, encourages “intentional and respectful awareness about differences between cultures” and also recognizes that because of systemic racism and prejudice, “there is a lack of trust by Indigenous people in the system.”
The program, which launched March 8, is the result of a collaboration between the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU), the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), and the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Network (SOAHAC).
“We’re a primary care team for Indigenous and First Nations people throughout southwest Ontario,” Dave Remy, SOAHAC director of client care, told Global News.
“When the vaccine came into play and came to London, we wanted to be a part of that for Indigenous people. So we partnered with the health unit and LHSC to set up specific Indigenous space … where Indigenous people can register and get the vaccine in a culturally-safe way with Indigenous vaccinators and access to Indigenous services right on site.”
Indigenous adults are identified as a priority group for COVID-19 vaccinations in Ontario.
In a release, officials say Indigenous Peoples “experience chronic health conditions at a rate that is between two and 10 times higher than the general population, which has been linked to disproportionate levels of poverty, adverse living conditions and racism.”
In addition to increased risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, vaccine hesitancy stemming from a lack of trust in the system is also a concern.
“Historically, the health care system has not been a safe place for Indigenous Peoples to access. We’re trying to help and change that,” Remy says.
The program encourages Indigenous Peoples to self-identify to a greeter or registration clerk when they arrive at the Agriplex for their appointment.
From there, they’ll be given the opportunity to have their dose administered in a dedicated space by an Indigenous vaccinator. The space itself was opened with a sacred tobacco ceremony, officials add.
Laura Mennen is one of those vaccinators and says the program is making a difference.
“Our Indigenous patients are saying that they feel comfortable and acknowledged because of the space provided, including access to traditional medicines and the option to speak with a traditional healer after their vaccinations,” Mennen said in a statement.
“We are hearing that clinic attendees are now sharing this positive experience with their family and friends, and helping to create awareness and overcome some existing hesitancy.”
Remy adds that in addition to booking appointments through the MLHU’s website, Indigenous Peoples can call 1-833-927-0197 or email email@example.com to get in touch with SOAHAC’s two system navigators.