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Dr. Grewal greets Kuldeep Bagga after being tested at the Embassy Grand Convention Hall in Brampton on Feb. 19, 2021.

Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

The glossy cream tile and gleaming marble in Brampton’s Embassy Grand Convention Centre has long made it an attractive venue for South Asian weddings – these days, the value of those finishes is that they can be easily sanitized.

In late January, the 25,000-square-foot facility was converted into the city’s newest COVID-19 testing facility, an unconventional solution to the problem of low testing rates that has plagued the Ontario city for much of the pandemic.

The high numbers of essential workers – many without access to paid sick leave – and prevalence of multigenerational homes has allowed COVID-19 to explode in the region. But the overall rates of testing were so low that there was talk late last year of closing underused testing sites.

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The South Asian COVID Task Force, which formed in November, told local and provincial health authorities that was the wrong solution.

The task force is a grassroots group of doctors, lawyers, business leaders and health care professionals. It was formed to educate the community about COVID-19 and to advocate on their behalf to governments to address the socioeconomic conditions that have contributed to disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 among South Asians.

Task force member Guri Pannu said the organization had learned that people in their community – who represent 32 per cent of the population but account for 59 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Peel Region, which includes Brampton – faced a range of barriers to getting tested: Not enough resources catered to their needs (after English, the most-spoken home language is Punjabi), their calls to book appointments went unanswered, and most testing facilities were far from their homes, at community health centres or hospitals.

Peel’s Medical Officer of Health, Lawrence Loh, agreed.

“We were not seeing necessarily the uptake of testing that we wanted to see to be able to really control the outbreak in our community,” he said. He also wrote to the province asking for more multilingual and multicultural supports.

The task force suggested that instead of closing down a site, the province should open a testing centre in one of the many banquet halls in Brampton that were not in use because of the pandemic.

“[Community members] have their wedding there, they have other cultural celebrations there. It’s not as intimidating,” Mr. Pannu said.

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The key would be to staff the site with medical professionals who spoke South Asian languages, he said. If people had questions about what it meant to test positive, or about the vaccine, they could get answers from someone with a shared cultural background.

The task force specifically looked for a site in north Brampton, which was logging some of the highest testing positivity rates in the country. They landed on Embassy Grand, just south of a neighbourhood where the weekly positivity rate for the last three weeks of January averaged 28 per cent.

The task force organized a local media blitz to spread the word about the new testing centre, similar to one it had undertaken earlier in the winter, after which testing rates went up four-fold at some of the existing sites. Testing centre staff appeared on television channels SSTV and Prime Asia, and on Parvasi Radio, to talk about the importance of testing. Videos in Punjabi, Hindi and other languages were distributed through the messaging app WhatsApp to show residents how to book an appointment, and posters were placed at Indian grocers and places of worship.

This past week, Harmanpreet Singh, a machine operator, was informed by the agency that hired him that he might have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on the job. Two of his colleagues were ill.

The agency told Mr. Singh, a 24-year-old on a work visa from the north Indian state of Punjab, to get tested, and recommended the Embassy Grand facility, anticipating he’d be more comfortable at a site fully serviced in his mother tongue, Punjabi, rather than in English, a language he was still learning. Even the call centre for booking appointments is staffed by speakers of South Asian languages.

“I felt really comfortable with them,” Mr. Singh said the day after his test. Raj Grewal, the site’s medical director, explained to Mr. Singh in Punjabi when to expect his results, that a free room in an isolation hotel would be available to him if he tested positive and didn’t want to put his sister (with whom he shares a basement apartment) or his upstairs neighbours (a family of six) at risk. (His result was negative.)

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Dr. Grewal said working at the testing centre since it opened in late January, where about 100 to 150 people are tested daily, has offered him frequent reminders of how COVID-19 is spreading in his community and the living and working conditions that put people in danger.

In north Brampton’s Castlemore neighbourhood, which is filled with homes zoned as single-family residential dwellings that are sometimes occupied by families of 10 or more people, COVID-19 can spread quickly.

“You’ve got a multigenerational family, and you’ve got two, three, sometimes four people being essential workers, from factory workers to truck drivers to health care workers,” Dr. Grewal said. The number of infections among essential workers has prompted Peel Public Health to push aggressively for the province to fund paid sick days.

Dr. Grewal also regularly sees Indian international students “that have, like, four or five people to a mattress in a bedroom. They’re all pitching in $200 each. And one gets COVID, they all do,” he said.

At Embassy Grand, culturally specific care doesn’t end with language; other services have been adapted to suit the community, too. The local isolation hotel has family suites so a parent and children who had all tested positive wouldn’t have to be separated when isolating. Dr. Grewal recently arranged for a man whose wife tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolating to receive meal delivery from a local gurdwara.

When regulations came out last year that halted large functions at banquet halls, Dr. Loh worked with the province to ensure they could be used down the road for vaccination centres. Dr. Grewal, his team and the South Asian COVID Task Force are now in talks with the province and Peel Public Health to make the Embassy Grand a mass vaccination site for the region.

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While the banquet hall’s size and setting make it a logistically advantageous location, its cultural role might also lure people, Mr. Pannu said.

“It’s where the community celebrates.”

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