Jeremy Hunka, a communications manager at Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission, was relieved to hear the shelter and its homeless population were going to be close to the front of the line for COVID vaccinations.
On Jan. 5, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that homeless people and those using shelters are a “priority population” with a much higher risk for ending up in hospital, and will get vaccinated after the initial high-risk and high-priority groups (ICU and emergency ward workers, as well as residents and staff in long-term care facilities).
The announcement followed news that 37 people, 12 staff and 25 clients, at the Portal Shelter in Chilliwack had tested positive for COVID-19.
Hunka said the Portal Shelter outbreak was concerning. “Our community has a greater risk for worse outcomes when it comes to COVID-19. Our community has more underlying health conditions, and more risk of being hospitalized.
“We are following extreme protocols to keep our community safe, but challenges are endless. We can’t stop providing our life-saving programs. People rely on (the Union Gospel Mission) for meals, weather gear, our recovery program, and the need for shelter has escalated since the pandemic began.”
The organization’s protocols include spreading their beds to different floors to create more social distancing. But when it comes to the vaccination plans and how those vaccines will be administered to members of the homeless and shelter populations, Hunka said they are in the dark.
The lack of information on how the vaccine will roll out on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and within the homeless and shelter community has advocates worried. Karen Ward, a neighbourhood resident and drug policy adviser to the City of Vancouver, said, “People want details, they want a timeline.”
Education around the vaccine among the community is key, said Ward. “Education will make everything else easier. Tell people what you are doing. People here have complicated relationships with health-care provision. There is an absence of trust. Let’s try to build some.”
Ward said it is not as easy as setting up vaccinations in shelters. “People move around. They need to leave at a certain time in the morning,” Ward said. “Many feel like they would much rather be outside than be in a busy, crowded shelter.”
“The lack of transparency and the information lag is depressingly familiar,” said Ward. “I’m seeing ad-hoc, random measures being taken, and they’re not telling residents what’s going on.”