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Scramble for COVID vaccines in Peel prompts calls for more community clinics
June 16, 2021
Olivia Bowden

Jaskaran Sandhu says the community vaccine clinic he helped lead at a Peel Region gurdwara had something the average mass clinic may lack -- immediate comfort and familiarity to residents.

Those booking appointments there “were essential workers, they were people from the community, and people who trusted the gurdwara,” said Sandhu, who’s also director of administration for the World Sikh Organization.

But the clinic, held at the Ontario Khalsa Darbar gurdwara in Mississauga in early May, was only temporary and is no longer open. It ran due to available vaccine supply from Peel Region and resources from Amazon, which Peel brought in as a corporate partner providing resources like immunizers and signage.

The gurdwara provided the location and hundreds of volunteers. Over the span of two weeks, 5,000 residents were vaccinated there.

While Sandhu and the rest of the team that organized the clinic have made it clear to Peel Region they would like to reopen -- whether that happens remains to be seen, he said. They are currently in talks with Peel to get it back up and running.

Peel residents don’t have time to wait, he said. On Monday when the provincial booking portal opened for second doses for those vaccinated on May 9 or earlier, appointments in the region ran out fast.

With the extremely contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 poised to become the dominant strain in Peel, there can be no delay with second doses, community organizers and medical professionals say.

Any delay in launching more pop-up and community clinics in Peel threatens to further hurt one of the most hard hit regions -- a manufacturing hub that is home to thousands of essential workers.

This week residents have been phoning Sandhu, asking if they can get their second doses at the gurdwara. He’s had to tell them they can’t for now.

“A lot of folks here are complaining. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of booking opportunities here locally. People are travelling as far as Barrie and Hamilton. And it’s off-putting. We’re in a hot spot ... there still seems to be a gap,” he said.

Pop-up and community clinics were very successful in hot spots like Brampton as they tackled impediments to access including having language support on site, said Dr. Amanpreet Brar, a general surgery resident at the University of Toronto.

“Unfortunately, no plan was made at that time for second dose and those clinics didn’t get further vaccines and have been shut down since then,” she said.

In statements to the Star, Peel Region said they have made strides in vaccinating the population, with 75 per cent having received a first dose and close to 12 per cent receiving two doses.

Peel Public Health fixed clinics are fully booked but residents are encouraged to check back as there will be more appointments made available. Hospital clinics, pharmacies and several primary care providers also have vaccines.

The Ministry of Health told the Star they are working with public health units to “fully utilize” their vaccine supply and they will provide additional doses to “Delta hot spots” when local inventory has been fully used.

The per capita approach to vaccine allocation by the province continues to impact communities like Peel that are grappling with systemic health inequities, said Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of the Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine at University Health Network.

“When we’re taking our eye off what needs to be done with getting the vaccines out ... Peel Region has been one of the most stark examples throughout the pandemic,” he said. “This is still life and death for people who are in neighbourhoods having COVID positivity rates over 10 per cent.”

While Peel’s rate of double-vaccination is climbing, some postal code areas still have a lower than average rate.

For instance, the postal code L4T, which is the Malton neighbourhood in Mississauga, is testing at 11.4 per cent positivity as of the week ending June 5, according to data from ICES. As of June 7, L4T has had 3.62 per cent of its population fully vaccinated.

Malton, near Pearson International Airport, is part of a cluster of neighbourhoods that have maintained hot spot status throughout the pandemic. The region is known to house essential workers and according to the 2016 census, close to half the population speaks a language other than English and French at home.

Just north of that postal code is one of the community clinics still operating that is aimed directly at the South Asian population in Peel.

Dr. Raj Grewal, an emergency room doctor and co-founder of the South Asian COVID Task Force, launched the vaccine clinic and testing centre at the Embassy Grand Convention Centre in Brampton last month with his wife Dr. Priya Suppal.

Clinic staff speak multiple languages including Punjabi to help residents book appointments on the phone and guide walk-ins. It’s a place many South Asian people feel comfortable, he said.

“The pop-ups are gone now,” said Grewal, referring to the gurdwara clinic and the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir clinic in Etobicoke that is also no longer running.

“People are trying to navigate where to get their second dose now,” he said. That’s why his team at the Embassy is doing outreach in Brampton, even going to nearby parks where older people go on walks to let them know.

It’s that kind of direct communication that is going to be needed, for those who are getting missed by the provincial booking system or don’t have a family doctor, or didn’t grab a pharmacy shot, he said. Brampton needs these shots quickly, as just last week his clinic alone was testing a 10 per cent positivity rate, he added.

“I’m hoping we get two vaccines into people’s arms and we get more vaccine into Peel,” he said.