On a quiet residential street lined with low-rise apartment buildings, Mélissa Jean-Baptiste is walking from door to door, armed with pamphlets in multiple languages and a purpose: informing people about the vaccines against COVID-19.
Jean-Baptiste works with CARI St-Laurent, a community organization that offers a range of services to the borough’s immigrant population.
She has paired with a worker from the local health authority for a ground-level push to bring vaccination rates up.
“I think it’s important because people feel included,” she said. “People feel they are not left apart, that we took time to give pamphlets in French, English and Chinese, also in Spanish.”
Their focus, on this rainy afternoon, is the Montreal neighbourhood of Norgate, a small section of the city’s Saint-Laurent borough, which currently has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.
The city’s public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, said recently the goal is to vaccinate 80 per cent of the population to curb the spread of the virus, given the presence of more transmissible variants.
So far, Montreal has been largely successful. More than 80 per cent of those 65 and over have gotten at least one dose, and in the lower age groups that number is climbing as more vaccines are made available.
But there are pockets of the city with a far lower rate of uptake, many of which are in low-income, more diverse parts of the city.
Roxanne Borgès Da Silva, a public health professor at Université de Montréal, says there are multiple factors that can contribute to a lower rate, including linguistic and cultural barriers.
She says groundwork by community groups and public health will be crucial to raise the rate as much as possible.
“It’s very important to implement such a strategy to maximize the immunization coverage because we know that we have lots of variation between the neighbourhoods,” she said.
WATCH | How community groups are spreading the word
Aiming to inform, not convince
Michaela Kaseka, 22, stands on her front stoop, while Jean-Baptiste and her colleague tell her about the vaccination schedule for different age groups, and where vaccine and testing sites are in her area.
Kaseka said her brother recently had COVID-19, but she isn’t in a rush to get the vaccine herself.
“I know that it’s serious and if I’m working with other people to respect them I would get the vaccine,” she said. “Eventually I’m going to get the vaccine, I’m not against it. It’s just that sometimes I feel like I could survive without the vaccine.”
Jean-Baptiste said it is not her job to convince people to get vaccinated, just to inform them.
But she said isolation, limited internet access and in some cases, misinformation or uncertainty about the vaccine, play a role in people’s perceptions.
At an apartment down the street, Yacine Hocini, a 22-year-old student, didn’t know he would be able to book appointments by the middle of this month.
“If they hadn’t come here I wouldn’t have known there was a vaccination calendar, or that you can get tested for free and without an appointment,” he said, adding that he would pass the information on to his roommates as well.
Pop-up clinics and taxi coupons
In another neighbourhood across town, another group organized by the regional health authority, the CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, is also going door-to-door with vaccine and testing information.
The Fontenau sector of the Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough was chosen because vaccination rates among some age groups there are trailing behind the rest of the borough. Recent data from Montreal public health shows only about half of people 80 and up in that sector have had a shot.
“We try and get as close to the population as we possibly can,” said Andrea Richardson with the CIUSSS.
“It’s really footwork.”
Richardson says they are also setting up kiosks in shopping centres and testing and vaccination clinics in recreation centres and parks, to reach people close to where they live.
Francine Richer, 59, was happy to get the information at her doorstep, even though she had already made her vaccine appointment.
“I think it’s important,” she said. “I hope we can touch the hearts and minds of people who still don’t understand.”
The health authority is making an effort to remove any possible barriers and make it as easy as possible for people to get the shot, said Julie Provencher, director of youth programming and public health activities at the CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal,.
That includes pop-up walk-in clinics in targeted neighbourhoods, door-to-door appointment bookings, and taxi coupons for people who need help getting to their appointments.
“The more we advance in this campaign of vaccination, the less people there are to reach, but the harder they will be to reach,” said Provencher.
“We know that the pandemic situation has been harder on people who are more vulnerable in society. We need to have specific strategies to reach those people.”