Two Hamilton doctors are taking to the streets in order to vaccinate underserved communities in the southwestern Ontario city against COVID-19
Dr. Kerry Beal and Dr. Joe Oliver regularly walk neighbourhoods with low vaccination rates offering on-the-spot shots to those who can’t access them — particularly those experiencing homelessness.
More often than not, the residents are happy to take up their offer.
“When we go out and about walking the roads around the clinics that Kerry has set up to service these neighbourhoods, every five to 15 minutes we encounter someone that expresses to us that they would like the vaccine,” said Oliver, a pediatrician.
“They’re not comfortable for various reasons, accessing a major or smaller pop-up centre, and they would like the vaccine then and there and would probably not otherwise go for it.”
Nearly 85 per cent of eligible Canadians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But while vaccination rates were rising rapidly through the spring and early summer, uptake has slowed over recent months.
In Hamilton, about 81 per cent of the eligible population has been vaccinated with at least one shot. In one area of the city, only 59 per cent of the total population, including those not eligible to receive the vaccine, received at least one shot.
With the growth of the delta variant, Beal says that she no longer tries to convince vaccine recipients through numbers alone, however.
“The prevailing wisdom is that the herd immunity thing is a crock — it’s not really going to happen no matter what numbers you get to,” said Beal, lead physician of the Shelter Health Network.
“Now, I try to convince people they need to get a vaccine because it will prevent you from dying.”
Trauma-informed approach is key
Both Beal and Oliver approach their practice with a trauma-informed approach. They provide physical space to those they’re offering vaccines to, offer the option to visit a clinic for their shot, and are intentional in the questions they ask.
“I’ve also learned not to say, ‘Have you had both your COVID vaccines?’ That tends to set people off,” Beal said.
“It’s better to just say, ‘Are you in the market for a COVID vaccine?’ Then they can say no without having to tell you that they’ve had them.”
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Their approach is reaching people who not only may be uncomfortable walking into a clinic, but those without identification.
Armed with iPads, Beal and Oliver can look up health card numbers for those lacking identification. Others who may not yet have a health card, like new immigrants, are also offered shots.
“They come to us with their immigration papers and we just enter that in COVAX [Ontario’s provincial vaccination record system], which gives them some ID so that when the vaccine passports finally come into play, they’ll be able to get a record of their vaccine,” Beal said.
The pair also carry a mobile printer to provide vaccination receipts to their clients.
Protecting younger people
Oliver says he got involved with Beal’s work in an effort to help protect populations that can’t be vaccinated.
“Our kids [under 12] can’t get vaccinated. A good way to protect them is for all of us adults who can safely be vaccinated to do so,” he said.
And as hospitalizations increase amid the fourth wave, Oliver cautions that it will be children who end up going without necessary medical care if health centres are at capacity.
“It definitely has implications.”
Working on the front lines of the pandemic, Beal and Oliver have become so in-tune with the communities they serve, they’re able to work together sometimes without words.
“Do you remember when we were out at that encampment off the side of the highway?” Beal asked Oliver.
“It was like I had a bird dog. I just gave you a hand signal and pointed at the guy … and you chased him around and you asked him if he needed a vaccine,” she recalled.
Oliver responded with a laugh, saying: “You don’t want to miss anyone.”
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.
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