Vaccine guidance in a bento box: Communities rally to ensure B.C. seniors not missed by immunization efforts

·3 min read
Keiko Funahashi carries one of  the bento boxes she delivers to Japanese seniors in Metro Vancouver each week. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Keiko Funahashi carries one of the bento boxes she delivers to Japanese seniors in Metro Vancouver each week. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Every Tuesday morning Keiko Funahashi goes door to door, delivering bento boxes to 55 Japanese seniors throughout the Lower Mainland.

This week's boxes are special, prepared for Japan's traditional Girls' Day on March 3. But next week, tucked inside the boxes, seniors will also find important instructions — details on how they can sign up to receive their dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, carefully translated into Japanese by volunteers.

"Japanese-speaking seniors ... they don't necessarily watch the evening news and they don't necessarily use the Internet. Some of them, they don't even have Internet at home. So we need to translate, but we also can't always email things to them," said Funahashi, the executive director of the Japanese Community Volunteers Association.

As B.C. moves into Phase 2 of its COVID-19 vaccination plan, the province is aiming to immunize community-based seniors over the age of 80, with seniors who do not live in care being asked to call to book their own appointments.

But community organizers and physicians are worried that seniors who don't speak English, don't have family support or don't have access to news sources may slip through the cracks of B.C.'s vaccine strategy, despite the province's efforts to reach everyone.

'People are getting isolated'

Funahashi said that weeks ago she began to receive a flurry of questions about vaccinations, with seniors saying they felt stressed that they may miss their window of opportunity to be vaccinated.

"A lot of seniors, they told us that they felt very anxious and worried, and then they would hear stories from their friends who might not also speak English," she said.

"You know, people are getting isolated."

The questions spurred the Japanese Community Volunteers Association to begin their own information campaign to ensure seniors living in their own homes are able to access the critical information that will help them get vaccinated — like informing seniors who don't speak English that they can get help to book their vaccine appointment.

B.C. released a graphic showing when and how seniors can register to get their COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.
B.C. released a graphic showing when and how seniors can register to get their COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.(B.C. Ministry of Health)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic there have been a variety of campaigns to translate and communicate provincial health orders.

With immunization efforts underway, Vancouver Coastal Health has translated information pamphlets on vaccines into nine languages. Call centres are currently available in Cantonese and Mandarin, with more languages to come. Interpreters will also be present at vaccination clinics.

But geriatrician Naaz Parmar said she's still been inundated with calls from seniors unsure about how to book an appointment.

"It's a really tough thing. There is that first barrier for people who are marginalized with their language skills, not knowing where to look. So they have been relying on their health practitioners instead," she said.

"We've actually gone to the point where we're printing out the forms in different languages and mailing it to their house, which takes a week — obviously not ideal."

Bob Chapman with Vancouver Coastal Health said for many seniors, making a phone call is the most straightforward way to book an appointment. But the health authority also knows many seniors will be dependent on their family supports and community groups to ensure they're not missed.

"It is going to take a village to support this. And we want to make sure that no matter where that person's support is, we can actually get the information to them," he said.

"There shouldn't be any barrier for people being able to get this vaccine."

CBC British Columbia is hosting a town hall on March 10 to answer your COVID-19 vaccine questions. You can find the details at cbc.ca/ourshot, as well as opportunities to participate in two community conversations on March 3, focused on outreach to Indigenous and multicultural communities.

Have a question about the vaccine, or the rollout plan in B.C.? Email us: bcasks@cbc.ca