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Canada’s high-risk populations face COVID-19 vaccine barriers

As Canada’s vaccination campaign intensifies, people at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19 often lack the resources to navigate labyrinthine reservation systems or the documentation that facilitates their path to inoculation.

Those without provincial health insurance, such as refugee seekers or paperless workers, often perform front-line work or live in neighborhoods that put them at high risk for infection. Immunizing this population is crucial to tackling Canada̵

7;s devastating third wave of the pandemic, epidemiologists said.

But a recent study by Toronto’s ICES – formerly known as the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences – found that vaccination rates are lower among Ontario’s immigrants, refugees and those new to the provincial health system.

22 percent of refugees had at least one dose of vaccine, as did 12% of recent provincial-registered health plan registrants, well below the 38% for Canadian-born and long-term residents, the study found.

The study did not look at people who lacked provincial health insurance.

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, does not require people to have provincial health insurance to qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine. But it can be extremely difficult for people without a health card to sign up for a shot.

Nurse Shazmah Hussein devotes two full days of her week to working on phones and helping people navigate vaccine enrollments at the Toronto Crossroads Refugee Clinic. On an average day, she said she might help 17 people sign up for shots after jumping from one phone number or site to another.

Signing up for a shot takes maybe 15 minutes for someone who has Ontario health insurance. For people without health coverage, it can take 45 minutes, even for someone who is familiar with the system and who speaks fluent English.

“They cried on the phone and said, ‘Thank you very much, you are my angel,'” Hussein said. “I do not think I did anything special. But just because they have had such a hard time navigating … it makes me feel like I have moved a mountain.”

Reuters called 20 pharmacies in Toronto and the nearby Peel region that offered vaccines. Seven said they needed health cards. Even within the same retail chain, there was variation in what a person needed to be vaccinated.

Loblaw Co Ltd (L.TO), which owns Shoppers Drug Mart, told Reuters a health card was not required and “we have done our best to clarify criteria with stores.”

On Friday, Toronto announced that it is partnering with community agencies to help people without provincial health coverage register a vaccine.

Byron Cruz, a lawyer at Sanctuary Health in Vancouver, said that without a valid visa and other documents, they have avoided signing up for a vaccine for fear of exposing themselves to immigration authorities.

A spokeswoman for the province of British Columbia’s health ministry said information “provided to public health for the purpose of the immunization plan will not be shared with other organizations.”

A spokesman for the Ontario Department of Health said the province would comply with privacy laws, but did not commit to not sharing the information with immigration officials.

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