COVID-19 cases are down and vaccination rates are up among Victoria’s unhoused population three weeks after a dangerous spike in numbers was leaked.
Both Our Place Society and Cool Aid Society, which run the majority of shelter and supportive housing spaces in Victoria, confirmed the trend to Black Press Media, although Island Health said it couldn’t comment on any specific changes.
Grant McKenzie, director of communications at Our Place Society, said of the approximately 500 people they support in Victoria, 56 had the virus around the end of September. By Oct. 19, he said that number had dropped to two.
Cool Aid Society declined to provide specific numbers, but agreed COVID-19 cases had risen over the last six weeks but have since decreased.
In an Oct. 1 media availability addressing the spike in cases, Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick said an estimated 300 unhoused people and shelter staff had contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic. Despite sharing that number, Island Health said it cannot provide an updated estimate due to privacy considerations.
At the time, Stanwick also estimated 30 per cent of the unhoused population had been vaccinated. Four days later, on Oct. 5, Island Health media relations advisor Andrew Leyne told Black Press Media that estimate had risen to 43 per cent. Since then, Leyne said they can’t share cluster-specific vaccination data.
Our Place Society and Cool Aid Society both confirmed that they’ve seen vaccination rates increase though.
“Once we saw COVID-19 in the community we saw a large uptick in people getting vaccinated,” McKenzie said. He said a number of factors have contributed to vaccine hesitancy among some unhoused people.
“We’re dealing with some people with, a lot of time, extreme mental health issues and also people who have been abused and traumatized throughout their life,” he said. There’s a long history of mistrust between vulnerable populations and the health care system.
And, until COVID-19 was at their doorstep, McKenzie said he thinks a lot of people just viewed it as one more thing to worry about among a myriad of others.
“When your whole focus is on survival, you’re not really going to believe in an invisible bug until all of a sudden that invisible bug manifests itself with somebody you care about,” he said.
Island Health also introduced an incentive program on Oct. 4, offering unhoused people $20 grocery store or quick-serve restaurant gift cards in exchange for getting a dose. As of Oct. 20, Leyne said 72 gift cards had been distributed.
However, with vaccinations taking approximately two weeks to become fully effective, it’s unlikely the recent uptick is the cause for a decrease in COVID-19 cases. Island Health did begin implementing 50 new plexiglass isolation pods in shelters when the spike hit, which may have had some impact. But, with those infected individuals still sharing communal washroom and shower spaces, airborne transmission has remained a risk.
McKenzie said it’s impossible to know what caused the initial spike, but noted that it only takes one infected person to visit a couple of sites to get the virus spreading.
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