Here’s how this eastern Ontario health unit hit a provincial vaccination high of 92 per cent

When COVID-19 vaccination clinics first opened in and around Brockville, volunteers phoned their neighbours to urge them to get a jab with the leftover doses at the end of the day, so none went to waste. At one site, someone out walking a dog nearby was called over to come on in.

Nurses at clinics would fill syringes with the vaccine, handing them over to paramedics who would then disperse to help the housebound, and clinics were set up in social housing complexes. In the summer, the unit followed the crowds and held a clinic at the Brockville Ontario Speedway during a racing event.

A local Giant Tiger opened up its warehouse so that employees and community members could be inoculated, and pharmacies in tiny towns — with populations of 3,000 or so — vaccinated many rural residents. Hockey rinks served as clinics before teams returned to the ice this season.

It took a community to vault this eastern Ontario public health unit to the top of the double-dose vaccination chart, exceeding its own 90 per cent goal on Sept. 27 — just a few weeks after school started.

Today, the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit remains the leader in Ontario, with 92 per cent of eligible residents fully vaccinated, and 97 per cent having received one dose. The payoff? Just 23 active cases, according in the unit’s latest numbers, in a population of 170,000 people.

The achievement has earned kudos from Health Minister Christine Elliott as well as Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore. Moore has repeatedly said the entire province needs to get to 90 per cent to keep COVID-19 in check.

People wait after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine at the ConnectWell Community Health Centre in Lanark, Ontario on Friday October 8, 2021.

But the next closest unit is in Thunder Bay, where 86 per cent of residents are double-dosed. Toronto sits at about 81 per cent. The lowest rate, at 78 per cent, is found in a handful of areas including Chatham-Kent and Hamilton.

“We have always worked well together in partnership with our community, and I think that was the case for us to come together early on, and see how we are going to provide vaccines to our community so they can protect themselves, and protect others,” said Dr. Paula Stewart, medical officer of health for Leeds, Grenville and Lanark.

The unit covers a large geographic area — some 6,329 square kilometres — and initially had fixed sites in Brockville, Smiths Falls, Almonte and Kemptville. Three were run by hospitals, and all with the help of doctors and community teams who sometimes saw 600 to 900 people a day.

But Stewart said public health realized it had to do more and began offering mobile clinics, with 11 municipalities jumping on board hosting four or five each, bringing in volunteers to screen patients before public health administered the shots.

“It was just an incredible effort,” Stewart said. “We had 40 pharmacies spread around Leeds, Grenville and Lanark so smaller communities with 3,000 to 5,000 people had a pharmacy in their community they could go to. Our media was phenomenal about supporting us … there was a buzz about it.”

If “someone said we think this is a good place to go” to offer vaccines, she added, “as long as it was going to be safe for our staff, we would.”

With many rural areas — Brockville, with a population of about 21,000, is the largest municipality in the area — “the vaccine clinics in the small towns were fabulous,” Stewart added.

“At the end, people would call their neighbours and say, ‘We’ve got extra vaccine. You’ve got to come and get the vaccine.’ … The community entirely embraced this as ‘This is an important thing to do.’”

The collective sense, she added, “was this was the right thing to be doing both personally, for my friends and family, and for others — to be part of something which is important, and the community continues to embrace it.”

By Oct. 4, the unit recorded 96.6 per cent residents with one dose, and 91.3 per cent with two, and it continues to see numbers go up. The results? Low COVID case counts, and few outbreaks outside of family members and close contacts.

“Touch wood,” Steward added, “but it’s making a difference.”

The challenge now is to appeal to the 18-to-29 age group, with mobile teams continuing to work with municipalities and businesses.

“We’ve adjusted (strategies) based on what we are hearing from the community,” she added. “In September, we adjusted to going out where the people are.”

Some units across the province continue to struggle with vaccine hesitancy, something Stewart said Leeds, Grenville and Lanark has also seen.

“There are definitely some people who are concerned — we hear about it through Facebook and we hear about it” via email, but public health answers all queries. Nurses at clinics will also address concerns if people want to drop in with questions.

Stewart said the unit is now particularly seeing a lot of reluctance among pregnant women, so she has spoken publicly about how important it is for them to be protected, and has reached out to obstetricians and family doctors to “give them key points they can use … We’ve basically been trying to meet people where they are, give them information and support them.”

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, who represents Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, said he is proud of the local health unit’s success.

It “continues to have the highest first and second dose vaccination rate in Ontario. Through a strong partnership between the province and our public health officials, Leeds, Grenville and Lanark is leading the way, demonstrating people’s willingness to be vaccinated and our health care system’s ability to administer those vaccines efficiently,” he said in a statement to the Star.

“Ontario’s last mile strategy is working.”

Larger urban areas currently sit at around 80 per cent fully vaccinated, including Durham Region at 84 per cent, York Region at 82 per cent, Peel at 81 per cent and Toronto at 81.6.

Halton, which has fully vaccinated 86 per cent of its eligible population ages 12 and up, said in a statement that it worked “quickly and collaboratively with our local hospitals to ensure a successful multi-site vaccination rollout last spring. We worked hard to implement changes with new direction coming from the province and changes in supply of vaccine in the first half of the year.”

It credited the smooth, quick rollout of an online booking system as “one of our major successes … This booking system was for all of our community clinics, including the two hospital clinics. Residents found this to be accessible and user friendly” and the unit also ensured that seniors were able to access clinics, including offering free transportation.

Lambton’s health unit, with one of the lowest vaccination rates, said it too faces vaccine hesitancy, but “our hospitalization rate continues to fall at or below the provincial rate and these are the numbers we are most concerned about in the fourth wave. Overall, these are very good numbers from a population perspective, but we can do better, and we continue to plan to improve our coverage.”

A person receives their COVID-19 vaccine at the at ConnectWell Community Health Centre in Lanark, Ontario on Friday October 8, 2021.

It said its “large rural population, and rural Canadians are more likely to report vaccine hesitancy. In order to investigate further, Lambton Public Health has partnered with Ipsos to conduct a local survey which will provide some insight into vaccine hesitant populations.”

Responding to questions about its vaccine rates, Toronto Public Health said it has a “unique context … (it) is the largest local public health unit in Canada, with over three million people in 140 neighbourhoods. Given the higher population relative to the rest of the province and other local jurisdictions, there are greater number of people who require vaccination, which can also further amplify challenges such as misinformation, vaccine hesitancy and barriers to vaccination.”

Public health “has been hearing from community partners who are connecting with residents, about why people are hesitant or unable to get vaccinated. For example, we have heard that access to vaccinations has been a barrier. Some residents are having difficulty finding time in the day to get vaccinated,” it said.

“… Others, such as seniors, may be having trouble getting to places where vaccinations are taking place or face technical barriers to book an appointment. Some express concerns about language barriers for navigating the vaccination process.”

Some 4.5 million doses have been given in the city, it added.


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