Shahista Hussein walks along the lineup stretching around the corner of Hutchison Street and Jean-Talon Boulevard in Montreal's Parc-Extension neighbourhood.
Public health officials seemed to have underestimated vaccine enthusiasm in the area commonly known as Park Ex.
Only about 100 doses of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 were made available for the first day at one of the city's new pop-up, no-appointment vaccination clinics. By the time the clinic at the Assuna Mosque across from Parc Métro station opened at 2 p.m., it had already attracted a group of about 50 people.
The clinic was supposed to close at 5 p.m., but by 4 p.m. — as more people continued to arrive — there were no doses left.
Hussein wasn't surprised.
For the past two months, she has been volunteering for The Park Extension Round Table, going door-to-door to give people information about vaccination.
Though some showed reticence at first and others believed they weren't eligible because of their immigration status, in the past couple of weeks, she says the tide has turned.
"I feel good. I'm so excited that people are taking it — because, before, they didn't want to," Hussein said, beaming at the crowd.
Hussein believes the situation in India, with a rising count of more than 300,000 daily cases and a harrowing oxygen shortage, was a gamechanger.
"Now they are scared. They don't want to lose their family, so they're taking it. And they're telling each other, 'I got the shot, it was nothing,' so even more are taking it," she said.
Anyone over 45 qualified for a dose at the clinic Tuesday. Wednesday, the clinic will be open during the same hours and will be offering doses to those over 40.
Thursday, another pop-up walk-in clinic will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the popular William-Hingston community centre nearby.
From hesitance to enthusiasm
Mahbubul Hawke, 54, and two friends he made as an Uber driver, Mukhtar Ahmed, 45, and Zahid Hussain, 52, waited in line together Tuesday.
They said they were hesitant about vaccines until family members and friends began to get sick in their home countries of Bangladesh and Pakistan.
"We came here to be safe and for other people to be safe from us," Hawke said.
Normally, he'd be accepting Uber fares at this time of day, but he said the trade-off was worth it.
"It's a little difficult. I'll lose my money, but I don't care. My first priority is my life and my health, then money. So I'm not worried about the money, I'm worried about my life."
Health-care workers say the pandemic has highlighted the barriers to services in Park Ex, one of the poorest and densest neighbourhoods in Canada.
Figures obtained by CBC from Montreal public health show Park Ex is trailing behind other neighbourhoods in vaccination rates.
According to the data, 48 per cent of those 55 and over have been vaccinated in Park Ex.
The next lowest vaccination rate is 64 per cent for the same age group in Saint-Michel, another poor, ethnically diverse neighbourhood.
Most Montreal neighbourhoods came in at more than 70 per cent. Town of Mount Royal, the well-appointed demerged city adjacent to Park Ex, has a vaccination rate of 80 per cent for those 55 and over and an overall rate of 32 per cent, both some of the highest numbers in the city.
Francine Dupuis, the head of the local health board, the CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, said Tuesday the overall vaccination rate in Park Ex is only about 20 per cent, compared to about 30 per cent for the rest of the territory covered by the health board.
"There is no formal medical welcome given to people moving into Parc-Extension who are asylum seekers," says Dr. Juan Carlos Chirgwin, a family doctor at the CLSC Parc-Extension clinic, who created a screening clinic for asylum seekers, of which there are a growing number in the neighbourhood.
"In other words, there is no formal orientation or system where, for example, children or adults are offered vaccinations."
Chirgwin has pointed out that many asylum seekers and immigrants in Park Ex work long hours in essential jobs, making it difficult for them to get to a vaccination clinic on time. As well, many may not know or believe they are eligible to receive it, or may not know how to because of language barriers.
But Chirgwin expects that vaccination percentage to improve soon, in part because people are more aware of the devastation caused by variants in some parts of the world, and locally, because community groups have worked so hard partnering with public health.
Stella Bailakis, a member of the neighbourhood roundtable who has been going door-to-door since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to share COVID-19 information with residents, says she was surprised by the low vaccination rate.
Bailakis says many of those she's visited recently say they have already had their shot or booked an appointment. Smiling, she said she recognized several people in line whom she'd met at their homes and had said they didn't want a vaccine.
Montreal Public Health Director Dr. Mylène Drouin has said her department has been working to eliminate gaps in access to vaccination caused by socioeconomic factors.
Bailakis and Hussein feel their outreach efforts are paying off. Many of the people in line Tuesday found out about the pop-up clinic thanks to pamphlets the pair distributed.
No-appointment makes process easier
One man in line, Mohamed Belahsen, 46, got a pamphlet at a local food bank.
"I've been waiting for this moment for a very long time," he said.
Belahsen has diabetes, a condition which can increase a person's risk of complications from the virus, and has been "very worried — too much" about getting sick. Not having to fret about making an appointment also made the process "much easier," he said.
Musarrat Jabeen, 55, who was in line with her husband, said she too had received a flyer.
"It's important for our health. We could get other diseases. We have been worried, very worried. We wanted to get the vaccine."
Marie-Evelyne Stiverne, a 55-year-old patient attendant at a seniors' residence two hours outside the city, stood out in the crowd, sporting blue-tinted glasses and a bright red scarf.
Stiverne said she had recently returned to work as a health-care worker and had been asked to get vaccinated.
She said she tried to get a shot of AstraZeneca vaccine last week but when she showed up for her appointment, workers couldn't find her name. A friend shared the temporary clinic flyer with her.
She admitted not wanting the vaccine at first, but "with the variants going around, I want to protect myself."
"It's for the collective good," she added. "I'm participating, I'm contributing."