Low COVID-19 vaccine uptake in vulnerable Ottawa neighbourhoods blamed on barriers

Some Ottawa neighbourhoods are showing first-dose vaccination rates of under 70 per cent, according to the local public health unit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa’s most vulnerable communities — those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic — are also largely reporting the lowest rates of vaccination, the local public health unit said as the city announced a new strategy to remove barriers for those still in need of a shot.

Ottawa Public Health on Wednesday released a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood snapshot of vaccination rates for those aged 12 and older as of Aug. 2, showing the stark disparities in vaccination rates across the nation’s capital.

While communities such as Vars, Stittsville and Cumberland report single-dose vaccination rates of around 90 per cent, fewer than 70 per cent of residents in areas including Fitzroy, Overbrook and Bayshore have so far received at least an initial shot.

Read more: COVID-19 disproportionately affects Ottawa’s Black residents, according to new data

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Across Ottawa at this time, 83 per cent of eligible residents had received at least one dose and 72.5 per cent had received both.

Multiple communities also showed double-dose vaccination rates in the low-50 per cent range, with Ledbury-Heron Gate-Ridgemont reporting 46.2 per cent of its eligible population were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 2.

Many of the communities reporting low vaccination rates were also highlighted as high-risk communities that were prioritized for shots early in the rollout, a strategy that Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, said helped to reduce hospitalizations and deaths in these neighbourhoods.

These areas were chosen based on socio-economic status and high rates of COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic.

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“We’ve seen in previous reports, this disparity between less and more advantaged communities is persisting through the pandemic,” Etches said in a press conference with OPH’s community partners on Wednesday.

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She clarified, however, that the neighbourhood data does not reveal the places in Ottawa with the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission. The statistics presented are a snapshot in time based on the postal code of a person who tests positive, but does not reflect where they work, go to school or spend the majority of their time.

“The unvaccinated population in Ottawa is across the whole city. You can’t draw a circle around the unvaccinated population in Ottawa,” she said.

Low vaccination rates in these communities can’t be solely attributed to hesitancy, OPH said in a statement accompanying the data. The health unit and its partners pointed to long-standing structural issues in Ottawa’s health-care system as a root cause of the inequities.

Many of the same factors that have seen disadvantaged communities suffer greater impacts in the COVID-19 pandemic — called the social determinants of health — are also limiting access to vaccines.

These include a lack of reliable transportation to clinics, an inability to take time off work to get the shot, and a lack of available resources in their language.

“They’re not just dealing with COVID. They’re dealing with the impacts of poverty, they’re dealing with the impacts of trauma,” said Kelli Tonner, executive director of the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre.

“There’s a lot more on the plates of people who are historically facing inequities that they have to sort through.”

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There are issues at the societal level as well, OPH and its partners said. Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities often have poor trust in health care related to a history of systemic racism in the field.

Tonner said the effect of rapidly evolving or unclear information about vaccines, combined with the spread of regular misinformation and disinformation about the vaccine, can breed further mistrust and uncertainty about the effects of the shot.

But she relayed one success story from her team that was canvassing in a high-rise during the vaccine rollout when they came across a man who “championed himself as the resident anti-vaxxer in the building.”

“But with continued outreach workers spending time in the building spreading information and having access to a nurse with whom he could speak with and seeing the impact of COVID on a friend of his, he came to us and asked, ‘Can you give me the vaccine and can I videotape you doing it? Because I’d like to spread the message of why I changed my mind,'” Tonner recalled.

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Hindia Mohamoud, director of the Ottawa Local Immigrant Partnership, said Wednesday that inequities in the COVID-19 pandemic are compounding to disadvantage residents of these neighbourhoods, who are largely comprised of Black and racialized communities.

“The neighbourhoods with the highest positivity rates are the same neighbourhoods that are now shown to have the lowest vaccination rates. In other words, part of the Ottawa public is facing continued high risk of COVID exposure on the one hand and insufficient protection on the other,” she said.

Read more: Black neighbourhoods in Toronto are hit hardest by COVID-19 — and it’s ‘anchored in racism’: experts

Mohamoud called for a review of the strategies OPH and its partners have used to date in engaging high-risk communities when it came to testing, vaccination and other public health concerns in the pandemic to see which tactics would most fruitful in promoting vaccine uptake ahead of the fall when the Delta variant-driven fourth wave of the pandemic is expected to be in full swing.

OPH and its partners are now setting up community hubs in four neighbourhoods in an attempt to further reduce the barriers in accessing the vaccine.

Through the hubs, mobile clinics and pop-up options available to workplace, community and faith leaders, the health unit is looking to vaccinate 37,000 residents living in high-risk neighbourhoods as part of its city-wide vaccination goal of 90 per cent.

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The four new vaccine hubs will be open for walk-ins at the following locations, days and times:

  • AMA Community Centre, 1216 Hunt Club Rd.
    Monday to Thursday, 1 p.m to 7 p.m.
  • Heatherington Family Centre, 1495 Heatherington Rd.
    Monday to Sunday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Bayshore Community Building, 175 Woodbridge Cres.
    Monday to Sunday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Foster Farm Community Centre, 1065 Ramsey Cres.
    Monday to Friday, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
    Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
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