Advocates applaud Manitoba’s plan to support vaccinations for urban Indigenous and homeless people

WINNIPEG — An advocate for people who are unsheltered or homeless applauds the province’s plan to vaccinate vulnerable Manitobans but hopes the strategy will be expanded to have immunizers meet people living in encampments, along river banks or staying in bus shelters.

The province announced Wednesday it will be opening community-led clinics in four communities—Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Thompson and two in Winnipeg—aimed at supporting access and vaccine uptake among urban Indigenous people and people who are precariously housed or homeless.

The province also announced that in the coming weeks, focused immunization teams will be visiting shelters to offer immunizations to people who are homeless who are over 18-years-old.

“I’m extremely encouraged that the province has a plan to rollout vaccines now to more vulnerable, high-risk populations,” said Marion Willis, founder of St. Boniface Street Links and Morberg House, a transitional shelter on Provencher Blvd.

But Willis said sending immunizers with vaccines out into the community could help reach even more people.

Willis suggested the clinical team at Morberg House, made up of two psychiatric nurses and an occupational therapist, could help give out the shots.

“I think it would be best if we went out in our outreach van, we met people at the encampments, in the bus shelters, where they are on river banks and offered to vaccinate them,” said Willis. “I think that’s going to be the most efficient way and most effective way of getting our population, the homeless population, over here (St. Boniface and surrounding area) vaccinated.”

“It’s because of the geography over here, just the nature of homelessness—it’s so widespread.”

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead on Manitoba’s Vaccine Implementation Task Force, said the province has considered the idea but found right now it would be logistically challenging using mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

“The more we can bring vaccine to people, the more convenient it is to them,” Reimer said. “One of the things that the manufacturers have made very clear to us is that they have strong limitations on how we can transport the vaccine.”

“We did specifically ask could we do a door-to-door campaign. They told us they did not recommend that we used their vaccine in that mechanism because they couldn’t guarantee that once the vaccine was in a syringe that the disruption, the shaking that would occur as you’re walking from one house to the next and across streets—they didn’t have any mechanism to confirm that wouldn’t decrease the effectiveness of the vaccine.”

Reimer said the province may revisit the idea when it has more doses of AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, which she said are more flexible vaccines that can be stored in fridges and are less sensitive to shaking.

Della Herrera, executive director of the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre on Higgins Ave. which will host a community-led clinic, feels the province’s plan will help immunizers administer vaccines to vulnerable people and those who may face barriers going to other sites.

“As one of the lead organizations supporting COVID-19 testing, we have figured processes to support individuals who have no ID by using a shared community database,” said Herrera. “We are in walking distance where the three main shelters exist.”

“We’ve created here a safe space for people to come and get vaccinated, whether it be homeless individuals or urban Indigenous, our community, our relatives.”

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