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Dr. Raveenthiran high-fives Sara Khan after giving her the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children, at the Embassy Grand Convention Centre in Brampton on Nov. 26.Baljit Singh/The Globe and Mail

June was a harrowing month for Rochelle Santos, when all three of her children tested positive for COVID-19. “One of my sons asked me if he was going to die,” she said. While her two older kids, twins, got the adult vaccine soon after they recovered, it was her youngest, Joshua, she was most worried about.

So when Peel Region rolled out the COVID-19 vaccine for kids between ages five and 11 on Friday, Ms. Santos didn’t hesitate to get Joshua, age 8, vaccinated right away. “I am relieved. I am not worried about side effects, I’m more worried about COVID. My kids have lived it. Once my son gets his second dose, I will be happy to put this nightmare behind us.”

Now you’re speaking my language: How one doctor who grew up in Brampton’s L6P is helping get the South Asian community vaccinated

For the past week, the South Asian COVID Task Force, a non-profit started by doctors in Peel, has been sharing short videos and posts on Instagram to tell racialized communities in Brampton, Ont., why it’s not only safe but necessary for children to get their shots. The same messages, distributed in several different languages, were also circulated on WhatsApp chat groups. This was made possible because the groundwork had been laid with the adult vaccine. When the day came for the children’s vaccine to be rolled out in the city’s L6P area code, which had the highest per capita rate of infections in Ontario till June, 2021, doctors were ready to answer any questions.

“We’ve been reaching out to people in their own languages for months,” said Dr. Raj Grewal, the co-founder of the task force. “Our team puts out information on Instagram and on WhatsApp groups, answering some frequently asked questions about the vaccine. We even reach out through Punjabi language radio and TV stations, which a lot of folks in Brampton watch. We did all the work for the grown-ups, so things are a little bit easier this time around.”

Aarav Shah gets the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children as his mom, Binal Shah, comforts him at the Embassy Grand Convention Centre.Baljit Singh/The Globe and Mail

It was through such outreach that L6P, a heavily racialized community with many multigenerational families, was able to climb its way out of being one of the country’s worst hot spots. The Embassy Grand Convention Centre, which was a testing centre during the first wave, became the largest mass vaccination site in the L6P region and one of the biggest in Brampton. On Friday, Embassy Grand was all decked up to welcome kids. Blow-up Pikachu and Batman greeted young Bramptonians. The first five children to get their shots each day get to pick out presents from a large basket of toys.

“We are jubilant and excited,” said Dr. Priya Suppal, medical director at the site. “Vaccinating kids is really the last frontier before we get back to some form of normalcy. We’re creating a happy environment for kids so that they develop a positive association with getting vaccinated. After all, we need to want them to come back here.”

The Embassy Grand has a daily allotment of 70 doses for children. On Friday, it had 39 bookings ahead of time. The bulk of the slots were scheduled for 4 p.m., after kids finished school for the day. However, all slots for Saturday and Sunday were booked up.

Dr. Suppal said having multilingual doctors spearhead the effort against COVID-19 helped Brampton recover. “Warehouse workers who don’t speak English very well were falling through the cracks till doctors started to speak to them in their language. We were able to explain concepts like isolation and physical distancing to them in Punjabi. You could really see the impact it made.”

Doctors at the Embassy Grand are ready if people still have questions. They are fluent in at least nine languages, including English, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and Arabic. Dr. Suppal said, “Sometimes people will book a slot but still have questions. We spend 20 minutes or so answering them. We want people to know that it’s ok to have questions.”

After getting her shot, 11-year-old Stella Schulhoff excitedly started writing a letter to Santa Claus, which would enter her into a Christmas raffle for all kids who got vaccinated. Her mother, Tracy Cadeau, said she had some questions about getting Stella vaccinated but said the benefits far outweighed any concerns. “My daughter hasn’t seen her grandparents, who live in Cuba, in a very long time. We are waiting for her to be fully vaccinated so we can travel again.”

Tristan Daniels, 11, was the first one through the door at Embassy Grand. After picking out a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos he said, “I was nervous, but it went okay. I’m going to tell everyone at school that there’s nothing to be scared of.”

A table adorned with presents for the children to win a prize for the clinic's Christmas raffle drive at Embassy Grand Convention Centre.Baljit Singh/The Globe and Mail

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