This article was written by Donnie Edwards, Niagara Regional Clinical Coordinator, and Nicole Gwiazdowicz, pharmacy student
On August 6th, Donnie Edwards, Niagara Region Clinical Coordinator, and a team of 9 pharmacy students partnered with Niagara Region Community Services and the Niagara Assertive Street Outreach Team to run a pop-up parking lot vaccination clinic in Niagara Falls. The focus of this vaccination event was to directly reach those who have barriers accessing vaccination against COVID-19 due to unstable housing. In addition to other challenges with their healthcare, vulnerable populations may be sheltering in areas with large groups of people, which increases their risk of infection. This pop-up clinic addressed the immediate need to protect marginalized populations, specifically individuals who are under-housed or without housing at all.
“The clinic was a huge success administering 35 COVID-19 doses! Students had the opportunity to vaccinate clients on-site and in teams, going door to door at neighbouring motels and shelters,” stated Sandy Dupuis, one of the main organizers from Niagara Region Public Health.
The day began with the team setting up the clinic, including assembling tents, chairs and laying out snacks for visitors to feel comfortable. There were also gift cards available for those in need. Prior to administering the vaccine, students checked eligibility to receive the vaccine through screening questions and ensured consent.
In addition to their regular clinic duties, the students assisted patients in overcoming their vaccine hesitancy by gently approaching the patient, listening to their concerns, and then educating them on the benefits of receiving their vaccine. Students answered any patient concerns, including possible side effects, mechanism of how the vaccinations work, and mixing of different brands of vaccines. Although tackling vaccine hesitancy can be challenging, especially with a population who may have lost trust in the healthcare system, the students were well equipped by their clinical experience.
During parts of the day, students teamed up with social workers to travel to nearby motels and shelters. Social workers’ involvement allowed students to physically travel to vulnerable patients who required vaccination rather than merely relying on patients to come to the clinic themselves. At this stage of Canada’s vaccination strategy, it is crucial to directly approach and offer the vaccine to vulnerable populations that are much less likely to be vaccinated otherwise. The students successfully vaccinated marginalized people through this outreach effort by collaborating with Niagara Region Community Services and the Niagara Assertive Street Outreach Team.
Although the event was hugely successful, delivering vaccines to vulnerable populations posed challenges many were unfamiliar with. The students felt that the after-care sheet provided to the patients seemed overwhelming to some vaccine recipients. A 1-page poster-like sheet with pictures, bottom-line messages, and phone numbers to call for help may benefit those struggling with language or literacy barriers. Also, mixing two different brands for vaccination was undoubtedly a point of concern for many people. For the future, the students noted that it might be beneficial to provide information on the safety of mixing ahead of time, rather than asking people to agree on the spot. To address these challenges, students utilized their skills in unique ways and thus will apply their learnings in the future.
Following the clinic, the pharmacy students had a chance to debrief and reflect. Overall, the students felt fortunate to have been allowed to utilize their skills to improve vaccination rates in a high-risk population. “I was glad I could talk to some people and give them more information—especially when misinformation is so readily available,” stated Colleen. She spent most of her time during the day addressing any questions that people had to tackle vaccine hesitancy. Additionally, all of the students agreed when Cassandra stated that she felt honored “knowing we made a significant and positive difference in the health, well-being, and quality of care for them and their loved ones.”
The pharmacy students and other teams involved hope to organize similar events in the near future to continue to reduce barriers for vulnerable populations in our fight against COVID-19.