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A woman walks toward the Genesis Centre, one of two mass Alberta COVID immunization clinics in Calgary, Alberta, May 14, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The neighbourhood in Calgary with the highest proportion of people who identify as visible minorities had the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the city as of late last month, according to a report prepared for Alberta’s health authority that recommends the province divert shots to such communities.

A provincial advisory panel, as well as a separate trio of doctors in Calgary, are trying to persuade Alberta Health Services (AHS) to deploy pop-up clinics in such vulnerable neighbourhoods thick with barriers to vaccine access. This is a strategy that has been tried elsewhere.

Racial inequities have shaped the pandemic across Canada and around the world. Data from several Canadian cities show that the highest rates of COVID-19 infections have been in racialized communities, where people often work in front-line essential-services jobs that put them at greater risk.

Health officials have acknowledged the same trend in Alberta, particularly in the northeast corner of Calgary, where the rate of active cases is 981.9 of COVID-19 for every 100,000 people, according to the province. This compares with 556 active cases per 100,000 people across Alberta, federal data show.

The vaccination rate in that area, referred to by AHS as Calgary-Upper Northeast, was the lowest rate of vaccination in the city as of April 27, according to data published in the report prepared by the advisory panel.

“It’s on fire,” said Gabriel Fabreau, who is among a group of doctors pushing for smaller pop-up sites.

Roughly 80 per cent of people in Calgary Upper-Northeast identified as visible minorities, according to the 2016 census, and 15.7 per cent immigrated to Canada within the previous five years. No other community in Calgary has more visible minorities or newcomers per capita. In the entire community, only 17.7 per cent had received at least one dose of vaccine as of April 27.

In contrast, Calgary-Elbow had a vaccination rate of 35.6 per cent. Visible minorities account for 17.3 per cent of the population of that area, according to the census data, and newcomers make up 4.8 per cent. (Calgary-West Bow, another predominantly white neighbourhood, was missing from the advisory panel’s list.)

Dr. Fabreau and his colleagues Annalee Coakley and Adam Vyse want Alberta to allocate 5,000 to 10,000 doses of vaccine for a pop-up clinic in Calgary’s northeast.

The three already serve a large swath of Calgary’s refugee and immigrant communities and were behind the push to prioritize workers in meat-packing plants in the vaccination rollout. Roughly 81 per cent of eligible meat-packing employees received vaccine at the mass clinics the doctors organized, compared with 55 per cent for this same group across the province.

The doctors argue that their relationships in the community and experience at the meat-packing effort will jack up vaccination rates in the northeast. They believe they can augment AHS’s vaccination campaign rather than reduce capacity.

The advisory panel report, published this week, reached similar conclusions. The report said vaccine rates in hot-spot areas should be improved through outreach and by engaging local community leaders and health care workers to “address local barriers to vaccination.”

“A variety of strategies could be considered, including neighbourhood and community pop-up clinics, mobile clinics, and/or workplace-based clinics in high-risk workplaces as is feasible,” the report said.

Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said while Alberta has “extremely large” quantities of vaccine coming and wants to remove barriers to access, the focus will remain on mass clinics rather than pop-ups.

“We are wanting to make sure we are maximizing the efficiency of the delivery,” she told reporters Thursday. Officials will consider outreach clinics if they identify communities lagging behind, she said, but must weigh how that would affect the overall immunization drive.

AHS launched a vaccine clinic with 10 immunization stations in the Genesis Centre, in Calgary’s northeast, in March. It offered Oxford-AstraZeneca, which is no longer available for first doses in Alberta. AHS said it has administered 40,000 vaccinations at the Genesis site.

Now, Alberta is expanding this clinic, hoping to have 40 stations running by May 15. Shots are doled out by appointment only, with capacity for 3,000 per day, AHS said. The health authority noted it extended hours of operation at the site during Ramadan, and was able to distribute an additional 1,400 shots between May 4 and May 10.

Alberta’s vaccine campaign accelerated in May and all residents 12 and older are eligible for a shot. By Thursday, 39.4 per cent of residents had received at least one dose.

As the rollout gains momentum, Alberta Health is looking at how to target communities with low participation rates, spokesman Tom McMillan said in a statement. The government will start posting vaccine rates by local geographic areas online starting May 17, he said.

“This will help us and local partners identify areas where additional work is needed to get people vaccinated,” he said.

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