Getting pandemic supplies a challenge in some low-income N.B. neighbourhoods

·5 min read
Public Health officials have suggested people upgrade their masks to N95s or KN95s, but the masks can be expensive and hard to find for those without access to reliable transportation. (Justin Fraser/CBC - image credit)
Public Health officials have suggested people upgrade their masks to N95s or KN95s, but the masks can be expensive and hard to find for those without access to reliable transportation. (Justin Fraser/CBC - image credit)

Before Christmas, Samantha Hebert took the bus across town from her home in Crescent Valley in Saint John, making her way to the Diamond Jubilee Cruise Terminal uptown.

But when Hebert arrived at the city's only rapid test kit pickup site, where she hoped to get kits for her family of seven before the holidays, she found a long lineup.

With a limited window to complete her errands and catch the bus home, Hebert turned around.

"The line was crazy," she said. "I shook my head and said, 'I can't stand here all day.' I had other stuff to do."

With Omicron spreading, New Brunswick Public Health officials have recommended people keep a supply of rapid test kits, but some people were greeted with long lines and no access to test kits at some pickup sites in the last two weeks.

Federal Public Health officials recently updated the guidance about masks, suggesting people ditch their reusable cloth masks for three-ply surgical masks or, if possible, N95-type respirators that can provide better protection.

But N95 or KN95 masks aren't easy to find either, and the challenge is even harder if you don't have reliable transportation or access to child care to try to track the items down, plus extra money to spend on new masks.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Asked about accessing rapid test kits, Hebert said people with transportation and other difficulties need alternatives to getting into line across town.

"Maybe somebody could take an address and do, like, a porch drop-off or something," she said. "There's a lot of elderly people too, they don't drive, they use buses too and that'd be a long time standing there for them as well."

Two days before Christmas, Hebert was able to pick up a supply of rapid test kits from the Crescent Valley Resource Centre, a short walk from her home.

"Oh my God, I was relieved," she said. "It's close and convenient."

YMCA helps out

The kits were dropped off by the YMCA of Greater Saint John, which got the supply through the Canadian Red Cross. The charity's Stop the Spread program helps provide access to COVID-19 rapid testing for community organizations.

"Here at the regional YMCA, we have a lot of newcomer clients in our centre," said Kathryn Melvin, the general manager of newcomer and community connections with the YMCA of Greater Saint John.

"We're also located near priority neighbourhoods. So when they reached out to us, I said absolutely, we can definitely do that. We can hand those out to people in need."

Melvin and her team were able to distribute packages with about 2,500 tests to local agencies before Christmas, and she hoped the initiative would be expanded in the new year.

"I think they were just very grateful to have access to them," Melvin said.

"It felt good just being able to get them there and making sure people who live in different areas, who might not be able to get there to the cruise ship terminal, can at least know somewhere that they can go get them."

Agencies helping people understand how to do tests

At the Crescent Valley Resource Centre, executive director Anne Driscoll was happy to be able to get test kits in the hands of some of residents before Christmas.

"We want to encourage them to test themselves every day [over the holidays] if possible, and test their family members and be really aware of what to do when they do use the tests and, if it comes back positive, how to follow through with that," Driscoll said.

CBC
CBC

She said the centre was working on helping people understand how to use the tests, which could prove to be an added challenge for those who are just learning English or who struggle with literacy.

Staff at the YMCA of Greater Saint John have gone as far as to go on Skype and Zoom with their clients, sometimes with the help of an interpreter, to demonstrate how to use the kits.

"We've also just recently recorded some information orientation sessions in different languages to help people understand that," Melvin said.

No indication government plans to distribute N95 masks

While the agencies were able to help get rapid test kits into residents' hands, Driscoll said she hasn't seen any residents in Crescent Valley wearing N95 or KN95 masks.

"Certainly, the cost around those more effective masks are a factor," she said.

When asked in December whether the province plans to make a supply of those masks available to the public, chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said she didn't have any information on "updated availability."

But she encouraged people to consider upgrading their mask "at this time if you can."

For some of the people served by the Y, upgrading their mask is not always accessible, but Melvin said her organization would be willing to help if it had masks to distribute.

"The access, having the availability in stock, knowing where to go find them, knowing the differences between those masks, those would be some of the troubles with getting those," she said.

"We would definitely be open to exploring being able to distribute those if we were able to get a donation of some stock of those as well. I think we'd be in a good position to be able to support that if it happened."

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