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A dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is seen in a syringe at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Amrit Gill, a resident of Newton, spent five-and-a-half hours in line at a Surrey pop-up clinic to receive her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. She considers herself lucky, noting the many hurdles navigated by her neighbours in a community where the pandemic is raging and vaccination rates are low.

“When we first signed up for the online registration, there was no messaging in Punjabi, when you’re actually going to the vaccination site, none,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that work in service industries in Surrey, so those people are putting themselves at risk, but they’re not getting the correct information as to whether they can get the vaccine, or where to get the vaccine.”

While the third wave of the pandemic is starting to ebb in much of British Columbia, COVID-19 cases in the Surrey communities of Newton, Whalley and Fleetwood are climbing.

Earlier this week, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix travelled to Surrey for a news conference on the COVID-19 vaccine program. The location was symbolic, as the most persistent pandemic hot spot in the province.

“We’re going to be giving [vaccine] priority to Surrey more than any other large community in the province because what’s happening here in Surrey is obviously significant in terms of transmission, and vaccination is one of the ways that we can address that,” Mr. Dix said.

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New data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, leaked to Postmedia and later released to other media outlets, show that the city of Surrey, which represents one-tenth of B.C.’s population, makes up 29 per cent of all COVID-19 cases. The report was current on April 29.

But the rate of infection is actually worse, the data show, because cases are clustered in northwest Surrey’s neighbourhoods, which census data show include a high proportion of workers in low-paying, front-facing jobs – sales and service, trades, and transport operators – who are more vulnerable to exposure to the coronavirus. Many do not have sick pay, making it difficult to stay home if they feel unwell.

The northwest corner of Surrey has a lower rate of vaccination than other parts of the city, while rates of testing positivity are off the charts: At least one-fifth of all COVID-19 tests performed are positive.

Victoria Lee, chief executive officer of Fraser Health, noted that her region “has borne a disproportionate share of COVID-19 cases in the province. This is in large part because the majority of essential workers, workplaces, industries, are located in our region. We’re also the most populous and densely populated region.”

Dr. Henry said on Friday the data guide decision-making in public health, but some of the challenges predate the pandemic. “These systemic inequities are not a public-health issue, they are what has been revealed by this virus, that we don’t value low-wage earners, that they don’t have the ability to stay home. And so part of the response that we have been doing to this whole pandemic has been trying to find ways to support workers.”

The communities in northwest Surrey are predominantly South Asian, and activists have raised concerns that Fraser Health has not done enough outreach in Hindi and Punjabi. To bridge the gap, UBC medical student Sukhmeet Singh Sachal started a grassroots organization, Sikh Health Foundation.

“You need to meet people where they’re at,” he said. “As the vaccine rollout happened, we started creating more culturally sensitive infographics. We were making pictures more inclusive, so when people see the picture, they can recognize themselves as well.”

His organization visited gurudwaras in Surrey. The volunteers assist with translation at vaccination sites, and try to counter misinformation that adds to vaccine hesitancy.

Bhavjinder Kaur Dhillon, a resident of Cloverdale, managed to book her shot on Saturday, but says many still have not had the first dose. “There are barriers for others in terms of accessing the system and navigating it – especially if English isn’t their first language or they’re not comfortable using computers or phones or the internet,” she said.

This past week, Premier John Horgan enlisted the help of Surrey’s municipal leaders, area doctors, local media and community leaders to promote vaccination.

Major South Asian radio stations have agreed to launch a vaccination drive next week, including radio ads, and hosts calling on listeners to register for the shot.

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