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Public-health efforts to prioritize the vaccination of drug users in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside were generally successful, a new study finds, though the at-risk group still lagged behind the rates of the general B.C. population.

Preliminary findings published Wednesday by addiction researchers from the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and the University of British Columbia found that, of the 275 people they tracked, 64 per cent reported having received two vaccine doses by the end of January, 2022. Nine per cent had received a booster dose and 16 per cent were unvaccinated.

In comparison as of February, 2022, 81.1 per cent of B.C.’s general population had received two shots, 45.1 per cent had third doses and 14 per cent remained unvaccinated.

Researchers say the outcome of Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) mass-vaccination strategy is positive, but also note efforts must continue for at-risk groups, such as drug users who are already vulnerable owing to the opioid-overdose crisis. Many Downtown Eastside residents live in deep poverty in cramped congregate settings, and the community also has higher rates of underlying health issues, including heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Certainly, with people who use drugs in Vancouver, they’re dealing with a lot of threats to their health … And so we think it’s very beneficial that the level of vaccination is approaching what we see in the general population,” said M-J Milloy, a research scientist of BCCSU and principal investigator of the study.

“But we would suggest that that the work is not finished,” he said. He pointed out the level of boosters among the group is much lower than among the general population.

“And so we think that our results today underline the need for continued investment in public-health efforts.”

Early last year, VCH’s targeted vaccination effort transformed Downtown Eastside from one of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in B.C. to one that achieved herd immunity.

Vaccinations started in the neighbourhood in January, 2021, and within less than four months, more than 11,600 people had received at least one vaccine dose – about 80 per cent of whom were residents and 20 per cent staff.

Dr. Milloy, who’s also an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at UBC, said researchers are pleased to see targeted efforts from VCH to work with this population and to try and overcome some of the structural barriers they face.

“Criminalization, stigma and discrimination that we have seen in the past lower the ability of people who use drugs to engage in health care, and to achieve the best health status for themselves,” he said.

VCH has hired people who have lived experience and are familiar with the community to assist the campaign, including Guy Felicella. When the strategy first started, he was out on the street, seven days a week, promoting the vaccine.

When asked why the vaccination rates among drug users on the Downtown Eastside lagged those of the general B.C. population, Mr. Felicella suspects it may be related to the transient population in the community.

“We did have super high rate of vaccination rates in the beginning as well. But some people might have missed those first and second waves of us giving the vaccines out,” he said, referring to those entering the neighbourhood from other communities.

Mr. Felicella said the outreach team is still trying their best to ensure people have the ability to get their booster shot.

A spokesperson for VCH said in a statement the health authority held a minimum of three clinics per week in various locations across the Downtown Eastside over the past year, and that it’s committed to continuing to offer low-barrier access to vaccination in this community.

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