Drive to vaccinate B.C.'s seniors faces unique challenges

·4 min read
People are pictured at a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Surrey, British Columbia on Monday, March 8, 2021.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
People are pictured at a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Surrey, British Columbia on Monday, March 8, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Wang Zhao no longer has to wait to be vaccinated.

"I'm one of the fortunate ones," she said through a translator.

But living alone in the Downtown Eastside and not able to speak English, Wang Zhao faced plenty of obstacles in discovering she was eligible for an early vaccination shot — and it makes her concerned for how successful B.C.'s campaign for the general population will be.

"Thanks to friends on [WeChat] I was able to connect with a specialist, and then later I was notified," said Zhao, who is in her 70s and has a long-term disease.

"But a lot of seniors who don't speak English, they won't be able to assess the information, won't be able to ask a specialist and ask their family doctor, and they don't even know where to get the vaccine at all," she said.

A member of the Chinatown Concern Group, Zhao says there are plenty of isolated seniors who are still in the dark about the vaccine rollout due to language and accessibility barriers.

Health Minister Adrian Dix provides an update on COVID-19 cases in B.C. on March 8, 2021.
Health Minister Adrian Dix provides an update on COVID-19 cases in B.C. on March 8, 2021. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Highest percentage of 80+ seniors in Western Canada

Approximately 230,000 British Columbians are over the age of 80.

That's about 4.5 per cent of our population — a significantly higher number than any other province in Western Canada — which means it will take longer for the province to finish vaccinating this age group.

"I would expect issues in the first couple of weeks," said Mahesh Nagarajan, a professor of operations and logistics at UBC's Sauder School of Business.

He said the province was likely to face challenges since it began its call centres, mass vaccination clinics and mobile clinics for people who can't leave their homes all at the same time.

"What I really want to see … is how they sort through these issues, and make it correct. Because when we get to April, we really don't have a lot of time to make mistakes."

'How can we help?'

In the meantime, the province is relying mostly on health authorities and its own communication teams to provide information to seniors, even though some groups are wanting to do more.

"How can we help? We have volunteers, we have staff members who are dedicated to helping seniors living in the community, and we would appreciate instructions," said Dr. Jie Zhang, vice-chair of the Victoria-based organization Seniors Serving Seniors.

Seniors Serving Seniors, a registered non-profit charitable society, says they're hoping to be able to provide more information about the vaccination campaign to people who use their services.
Seniors Serving Seniors, a registered non-profit charitable society, says they're hoping to be able to provide more information about the vaccination campaign to people who use their services. (Mike McArthur/CBC News)

Executive Director Vicki Pilot said they've gotten calls from clients in their 90s with diabetes, seniors who are homebound and others.

She said they all have questions about the vaccine process and many want to know if they qualify to have some one come to their home to administer the vaccine.

"I'm hearing a lot of anxiety and frustration," Pilot said.

Rollout problems

The Ministry of Health says people with mobility issues can tell call centre employees when they're trying to book an appointment, and they will be called back by the government.

That process has been mired with delays however, and five days after asking, the Ministry of Health was still unable to tell CBC how many people were staffing call centres across the province and how many phone calls the centres were equipped to take each day.

"Maybe they need a few more people on the call line, because we're hearing people are having a hard time phoning in," said Pilot.

In the meantime, seniors like Zhao continue to push the government to do a better job reaching out to communities, providing more information in all widely-used languages and working with groups already on the ground.

"Get more resources, let the Chinese community know what's happening and what seniors should do to support [the vaccination drive]," she said.

"I'm doing good, but ... Chinatown seniors are still suffering."

CBC British Columbia is hosting a town hall on March 10 to put your COVID-19 vaccine questions to expert guests, including Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. You can find the details at cbc.ca/ourshot. Have a question about the vaccine, or the rollout plan in B.C.? Email us: bcasks@cbc.ca

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