October 20, 2021

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A pop-up vaccine site in one of Canada’s poorest neighborhoods

A pop-up vaccine site in one of Canada's poorest neighborhoods


The gritty neighborhood is located in one of Canada’s most dreamy and picturesque cities, on roughly 15 blocks that are among the poorest and seedy in the country.

Epicenter of Canada’s opioid crisis, the area has become a symbol of urban poverty, addiction and social exclusion in one of the richest nations in the world, but also of resilience, progressive communities and social policies.

Men and women inject illicit drugs in the alleys within walking distance of Gastown, an area dotted with upscale gastro pubs and restaurants. The neighborhood is also home to North America’s first supervised injection site, where people inject opioids, crack and methamphetamine, under the supervision of nurses, and free, clean syringes and other supplies are provided.

Since the beginning of this year, the Downtown Eastside has also hosted a pioneering program in which the local health authority has provided free vaccinations against Covid-19 to homeless people and those living in shelters or assisted housing in the neighborhood. He set up mobile vaccination tents, targeted people in food lines, and even offered $ 5 to those who receive the vaccine.

During a time when Canada’s relatively slow roll-out of vaccination has fueled anger and frustration, some local residents have complained that their tax dollars will fund vaccinations for homeless people when they themselves don’t have access to vaccines.

But Dr. Althea Hayden, head of public health for the health authority overseeing the program, told me that providing vaccines to the most vulnerable in the city was a public health imperative – people in the neighborhood were four times more likely to be hospitalized or die. whether they have contracted Covid-19 as a general population. Many had compromised immune systems, faced enormous self-isolation challenges, and were at greater risk of contracting the disease and passing it on to others.

“Vulnerable communities are the people who suffer disproportionately from the effects of any communicable disease and have worse outcomes,” he told me. “I was expecting more of a backlash, but people seem to understand why this is important.”

British Columbia has had to contend with two health emergencies: a deadly pandemic and deaths from drug overdose. In 2020 alone, there were more than 1,724 drug overdose deaths in the province, or an average of about 4.7 deaths per day, according to the British Columbia Coroners Service.

The vaccination schedule comes as British Columbia’s healthcare system is under severe pressure from the pandemic with hospitalizations reaching new levels. As of Friday, the province had registered 123,000 cases of Covid-19, of which 1,550 people have died.

Meanwhile, in the Downtown Eastside, the virus appears to have been largely contained. As of mid-February, the neighborhood had about 75 coronavirus cases in a week, according to the local health authority. Today, around 7,500 local residents have been vaccinated and this week the cases have dropped to around five.

This week, New York Times photographer Alana Paterson took off with her camera to document the vaccination schedule in action. Also a resident of Vancouver, she told me she was heartened by the way dedicated nurses had managed to establish trust in a community with a strong distrust of authority. Some residents had told nurses they were too afraid to get vaccinated.

On Wednesday, in an impromptu vaccination pop-up in the heart of the neighborhood, Alana saw dozens of people lined up to get vaccinated, some sleeping in folding chairs. A man with a green mohawk and tattooed arms sat patiently wearing his mask as he received the vaccine. Another was so drunk he could barely stand up. The nurses gave him a bottle of water and a lollipop, and after his shot, he put hand sanitizer in his water bottle and drank it.

In the surrounding streets, Alana told me, she saw people holding drug needles, some in their pockets or shoes. Others lay tall in a fetal position on the pavement. At an overdose prevention site, a visibly pregnant woman injected herself. Three nurses rushed in and called a doctor to look after her.

At the vaccination pop-up, a man, dressed in workman’s clothes, reacted angrily when he was rejected after a nurse determined he was ineligible because he lived in an apartment building in a more upscale and upscale area.

“I pass these people every day,” he protested. “This is outrageous.”

But health workers said limiting vaccination to those who are vulnerable was the program’s mission, while it also needed to avoid chaos and discourage vaccinated tourists from other parts of the city.

“Vaccinating here is necessary to help warn a public health disaster in the city because they are part of the community,” Alana told me, adding that if the coronavirus invaded them, “it would be like a bomb went off and there would be no way to control it. . “


Dan Bilefsky is a Canadian correspondent for The New York Times, based in Montreal. Previously he worked in London, Paris, Prague and New York. He is the author of the book “The Last Job”, about a gang of old English thieves called “The Bad Grandpas”. @DanBilefsky


  • President Biden held a virtual summit on Thursday, pledging to reverse the US climate change record. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, once a standard bearer of the cause, participated in the awkward position of representing the only country in the Group of 7 where greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the Paris Agreement, largely due to oil sands. . (An update: Mr. Trudeau raised Canada’s target for reducing emissions from 40 to 45 percent, Mr. Biden committed the United States to a 50 percent reduction.)

  • When Mr. Trudeau legalized recreational marijuana, many investors had dreams of wealth by entering the ground floor of the nation’s newest legal vice. Two and a half years later, the industry continues to retreat and remains burdened with dizzying losses.

  • In a decision that angered civil liberties groups, a Quebec court largely upheld the province’s law banning public sector employees from wearing religious symbols while at work.

  • A member of Parliament from Bloc Québécois acknowledged being the source of a leaked screenshot showing William Amos, a liberal member of Quebec, appearing naked on Zoom by mistake during a session of the House of Commons last week.

  • In her review, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote that “The Marijuana Conspiracy”, a new film set in Canada in 1972 that dramatizes a real experiment to test the effects of cannabis on young women, is a “distressing film” that “seems like a lost opportunity for ethical investigation burning. “

  • This week, Patrick Marleau broke the record for most games played in the NHL set by Gordie Howe, another Saskatchewan native, in 1961.


This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Ian Austen, an Ottawa correspondent for the Times.


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