The parking lot at Emmanuel Baptist Church was overflowing on Thursday morning for the first time since the pandemic began.
But the people coming to the sprawling rural church outside Halifax weren’t here for prayer. They came for the COVID-19 vaccine, as part of a pilot project to better immunize the province’s African Nova Scotian community against the coronavirus.
Nova Scotia has enlisted the help of some of its historically Black churches to fight vaccine hesitancy among older African Nova Scotians, using pastors and community leaders to encourage people to get their shot. It’s fuelled in part by data out of the United States suggesting Black people are as much as three times more likely to be admitted to hospital with the virus.
Rev. Lennett Anderson, Emmanuel’s senior pastor, used his Sunday sermon and social-media channels to urge people to come to the church for the one-day clinic. The Association of Black Social Workers also called people directly, using census records, to book appointments for a community that sometimes mistrusts health officials because of racism or mistreatment they’ve experienced in the past, he said.
“There’s an apprehension, people are uneasy, because history plays a role,” Rev. Anderson explained. “So we’re trying to remove any barriers, any hindrances that people might have. We knew that people would feel more comfortable going into their own community.”
Canada pre-purchased millions of doses of seven different vaccine types, and Health Canada has approved four so far for the various provincial and territorial rollouts. All the drugs are fully effective in preventing serious illness and death, though some may do more than others to stop any symptomatic illness at all (which is where the efficacy rates cited below come in).
- Also known as: Comirnaty
- Approved on: Dec. 9, 2020
- Efficacy rate: 95 per cent with both doses in patients 16 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 15-year-olds
- Traits: Must be stored at -70 C, requiring specialized ultracold freezers. It is a new type of mRNA-based vaccine that gives the body a sample of the virus’s DNA to teach immune systems how to fight it. Health Canada has authorized it for use in people as young as 12.
- Also known as: SpikeVax
- Approved on: Dec. 23, 2020
- Efficacy rate: 94 per cent with both doses in patients 18 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 17-year-olds
- Traits: Like Pfizer’s vaccine, this one is mRNA-based, but it can be stored at -20 C. It’s approved for use in Canada for ages 12 and up.
- Also known as: Vaxzevria
- Approved on: Feb. 26, 2021
- Efficacy rate: 62 per cent two weeks after the second dose
- Traits: This comes in two versions approved for Canadian use, the kind made in Europe and the same drug made by a different process in India (where it is called Covishield). The National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s latest guidance is that its okay for people 30 and older to get it if they can’t or don’t want to wait for an mRNA vaccine, but to guard against the risk of a rare blood-clotting disorder, all provinces have stopped giving first doses of AstraZeneca.
- Also known as: Janssen
- Approved on: March 5, 2021
- Efficacy rate: 66 per cent two weeks after the single dose
- Traits: Unlike the other vaccines, this one comes in a single injection. NACI says it should be offered to Canadians 30 and older, but Health Canada paused distribution of the drug for now as it investigates inspection concerns at a Maryland facility where the active ingredient was made.
How many vaccine doses do I get?
All vaccines except Johnson & Johnson’s require two doses, though even for double-dose drugs, research suggests the first shots may give fairly strong protection. This has led health agencies to focus on getting first shots to as many people as possible, then delaying boosters by up to four months. To see how many doses your province or territory has administered so far, check our vaccine tracker for the latest numbers.
The clinic will move to a church in Cherry Brook, another predominantly Black community, next week. More vaccination clinics are planned at other African Nova Scotian communities later this month.
Rev. Anderson, whose church was established by Black refugees from the War of 1812, acknowledged not everyone is happy to see a clinic serving only one group of people. Nova Scotia has largely relied on pharmacists and doctors to administer its vaccines, and lags the rest of the country with fewer than 7 per cent of the population partly vaccinated.
To appease non-Black members of his congregation, the church tried to help others connect with pharmacies in the area offering the vaccine. But in a province where COVID-19 has largely been kept at bay – there are only 40 active cases and one person in hospital with the virus – there has been little public protest, he said.
“Our congregation is a mosaic, and we didn’t want to cause any offence, like ‘Why is there a clinic only for people of African descent?’” he said “But the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
In late February, Nova Scotia held its first of 13 vaccination clinics at Mi’kmaq communities around the province. The province’s top doctor says some racialized communities need to be approached differently because of inherent distrust in the health care system.
“We have heard from community leaders that for these reasons, there is mistrust of the vaccine in these communities,” Dr. Robert Strang said. “This is why it’s so important that the vaccine be offered in a culturally responsive way that takes the lived reality of African Nova Scotians into consideration.”
Debra Gannon, the project co-ordinator for the African Nova Scotian clinics, said the flow of people coming through the doors was “unbelievable.” More than 250 people, all 55 years old and over, were vaccinated on Thursday. Many more signed up for a waiting list.
“Having this clinic available, not just in this community but all the African-Nova Scotian communities, is certainly a great advantage to those who don’t have the opportunity to go to outside clinics, pharmacies or wherever the other clinics may be,” she said.
Dean Smith, who also volunteered to set up the clinic, was among those vaccinated at the church. He said the clinic and others like it will play an important role in protecting African-Nova Scotian communities, which have been “impacted disproportionately by COVID-19.” People trust their church, and that goes a long way, he said.
“Emmanuel Baptist Church is the bedrock of Hammonds Plains and a number of African-Nova Scotian communities in the surrounding area,” Mr. Smith said, while waiting in the recovery area. “So I think it’s a perfect opportunity for people to come to the church and to get their inoculation at the same time.”
Andrew Boudreau, a public-health nurse, was one of 10 vaccinators stationed at tables inside the church’s main sanctuary. He said he was proud to be part of a project to promote health equity, and said “it’s really special” to see how well people responded to the clinic.
Rev. Anderson, whose congregants helped stack chairs after their Easter Sunday service in anticipation of the crowds, said he expected a large turnout. But was stunned at what he saw when he walked inside the church.
“The energy in the building was electrifying,” the pastor said. “I was surprised to see how excited people were to get the vaccine. I thought there would be some uneasiness or some nervousness, but no. It was amazing.”
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