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High-risk populations in Canada face vaccine barriers against COVID-19

With Canada’s growing vaccination campaign, people at higher risk of transmitting COVID-19 often lack the resources to navigate maze reservation systems or documentation to facilitate their path to inoculation.

Those without provincial health insurance, such as plaintiff refugees or undocumented workers, often do front-line work or live in neighborhoods that put them at high risk of infection. Immunization of this population is crucial to tackling the crushing third wave of the pandemic in Canada, epidemiologists said.

But a recent ICES study in Toronto – formerly known as the Institute for Clinical and Evaluation Sciences – found that vaccination rates were lower among immigrants, refugees and newcomers to the province’s Ontario health system.

Twenty-two percent of refugees had had at least one dose of the vaccine, as did 12 percent of recent registrants in the province’s health plans, well below 38 percent for Canadian-born and long-term residents, the study found.

The study does not look at people who lack provincial health insurance.

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

Nurse Shazma Hussein spends two full days a week working on the phones and helping people navigate vaccine registrations at the Crossroads Refugee Clinic in Toronto. On average, she said in one day she could help 17 people sign up for photos after being transferred from one phone number or website to another.

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

“They called on the phone and said, ‘Thank you very much, you are my angel,'” Hussein said. “I don’t think I did anything special. But just because it was so hard for them to navigate … it makes me feel like I’ve moved a mountain.”

Reuters called 20 pharmacies in Toronto and the neighboring Peel region that offer vaccines. Seven said they needed health cards. Even within the same retail chain, there were variations in what one should be vaccinated.

Loblaw Co Ltd (L.TO), which owns Shoppers Drug Mart, told Reuters that no health card was required and “we are doing our best to clarify the criteria in the stores.”

On Friday, Toronto announced it was partnering with community agencies to help people without a vaccine health insurance register.

Byron Cruz, a Sanctuary Health lawyer in Vancouver, said people without a valid visa and other documents avoided registering for the vaccine for fear of exposing themselves to immigration authorities.

A spokesman for the British Columbia Department of Health said the information “provided to public health for the purposes of the immunization plan will not be shared with other organizations”.

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health said the province would abide by privacy laws, but did not undertake not to share the information with immigration authorities.

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