Community outreach teams vaccinate the vulnerable in Vancouver

Guy Felicella, community outreach team member

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS has a whole new meaning in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver these days. Teams of dedicated health care professionals are out in the streets taking the COVID-19 vaccine to the most vulnerable in the city. The results are impressive.

The Downtown Eastside is home to a large population of drug users, the poor and homeless in the city. In early March 2021, the Downtown Eastside was a COVID-19 “hotspot”, with the highest rate of COVID-19 per person of any neighbourhood in Vancouver. Not any more. Not since community outreach teams started taking the COVID-19 vaccine into the street.

From the street, to the street

Guy Felicella is a member of one of those teams. Felicella is a former Downtown Eastside resident who struggled with a drug addiction. “What’s amazing for me is living in that community for decades, homeless and struggling with substance use, and now I’m in the position to be able to go back to the same street corners, where I once sold and used drugs to survive, and offer people the vaccine,” he explains.

“Just weeks after the vast majority of those at risk received their first doses of vaccine, we have seen a dramatic decline in the number of new cases identified in the DTES. It’s taking a little bit of pressure off the community at a time when that’s badly needed,” adds Felicella.

To achieve this community members, like Felicella, helped set up a series of pop-up vaccine centres on the streets in the community. Appointments were not necessary.

Nurses also visited single room occupancy hotels. “If somebody had an issue and couldn’t move from their room, we would go to their room and vaccinate them as well and then we’d have to wait outside the door for 15 minutes to make sure they were OK,” explains Felicella.

Been there, done that too

By the end of April, community health teams had successfully vaccinated over 11,600 people. Peer support workers have had a lot to do with that success.

Peer support workers with experience of living in the community, who also have had bad experiences with the health care system, can connect with residents to eliminate their fears and doubts and encourage them to get vaccinated.

“I can relate to what’s going on with people,” Wendy Stevens, a peer operations coordinator and former Downtown Eastside resident, told CTV News. “I have no problem sitting on the ground in the alley,talking to someone about their concerns or helping them navigate the process.”

Overdose crisis continues

The success of the COVID-19 vaccine effort against the coronaviruis is good news. The bad news is that the restrictions necessary to win the larger fight against the virus have made the drug overdose crisis in the Downtown Eastside even worse.

The restrictions imposed to combat the pandemic meant that many drug users turned to using drugs from unknown suppliers that were often contaminated. Using these contaminated drugs led to a spike in deaths among addicted drug users.

The province declared a health care emergency due to drug overdoses in 2016. 2020 was the worst year on record for lives lost to overdoses. This year is on course to be even worse.

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