COVID-19: Parts of Surrey grapple with high rates of infection, low rates of vaccination

Premier John Horgan.

Even as B.C. tries to douse COVID-19 hot spots with targeted and rapid vaccination, one area of Surrey has significantly higher infection rates than the rest of the province but lower vaccination uptake, according to internal data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

With the province’s vaccine supply set to double this month, Premier John Horgan is meeting with community leaders across the Lower Mainland this week in an effort to counter vaccine hesitancy and ensure people are registered for their jab.

Surrey continues to have the highest rate of COVID cases in the province with 29 per cent of all B.C. cases for the week of April 23 to 29, according to Disease Control information provided to Postmedia News but not released publicly.

Parts of northwest Surrey including Whalley and Newton had an average of 40 COVID-19 cases a day for every  100,0000 people, more than double the rate of most other areas of Metro Vancouver. In Whalley and Newton, more than 20 per cent of COVID-19 tests were positive, compared to 11 per cent for the whole province.

Those neighbourhoods, plus Guildford, had a lower first-dose vaccination rate. Just 21 to 40 per cent of adults in those neighbourhoods have had their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to between 41 and 60 per cent of adults in South Surrey, Delta and Langley.

Sarah Otto, a UBC epidemiologist, said the high rate of COVID cases and lower vaccination rates in northwest Surrey is an indication that “we’re not vaccinating fast enough in the places that are hardest hit.”

Horgan is talking this week to Lower Mainland mayors, youth, staff at non-profit agencies, religious leaders, business owners and social media influencers, hoping for guidance on how to make vaccine delivery as accessible as possible, especially in COVID-19 hot spots.

Kulpreet Singh, founder of the Surrey-based South Asian Mental Health Alliance, took part in a conference call with Horgan on Monday morning along with other South Asian community advocates and medical professionals.

“It was very encouraging,” he said. “The premier seemed to be genuinely looking for input and guidance on what could be improved on the way the vaccine rollout is being managed.”

The group suggested that health authorities set up vaccine clinics at family doctors’ offices, religious schools, places of worship and other “low-barrier” community access points, Singh said. The province could also simplify the registration website so that people can register and book their appointment at the same time, he said. Community advocates would also like to see better language interpretation and translation of official government websites, social media posts and press conferences, Singh said.

Singh was critical last week of the “pandemonium” created by disorganized pop-up vaccination clinics in Surrey and Port Coquitlam. People lined up for hours and jabs were given to some people even though they were outside the Fraser health region or under the age requirement. Singh said the pop-up clinics were unfair to people who aren’t scanning social media or can’t take hours off work at a moment’s notice.

The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, apologized for the flawed experiment but said the intent of the clinics was to vaccinate people in high-transmission areas where registration remains low. Approximately 6,000 people over three days received first doses through the pop-up clinics.

Balwant Sanghera, general secretary for Richmond’s No. 5 Road temple, said he’d like health authorities to set up clinics inside gurdwaras, mosques, churches and other places of worship. They’re places people are already familiar with and they have culturally appropriate staff who can overcome language barriers, he said.

Sanghera said most of the people he’s talked to are open to getting the vaccine, although he has encountered skepticism over the AstraZeneca vaccine, especially after a 54-year-old woman in Quebec died of a rare blood clot in the brain after getting that vaccine.

Otto agreed that the best way to vaccinate people in hot spots is to provide vaccinations inside workplaces and on school grounds in order to reach people in spaces they use regularly.

Henry said Monday that in addition to the premier’s outreach with community groups, health officials are “reaching out in many ways to try and get people in for their immunizations.”

Over the weekend, teams from Fraser Health visited some gurdwaras to give people information on how to register and the location of the various vaccination clinics, Henry said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix noted that the city of Surrey as a whole has a higher rate of vaccination than Vancouver, Burnaby and other areas of Metro Vancouver. “But we need it to be higher and we need more people to be registered there,” he said.

The Centre for Disease Control figures also show that so-called variants of concern made up 78 per cent of screened COVID cases as of the end of April and are likely to become the dominant strain of the coronavirus early this month.

Of the variants of concern identified, 60 per cent are the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom and 40 per cent are the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, according to figures for the week of April 23 to 29.

The report also notes that as Alberta grapples with the highest COVID-19 rates in Canada, there’s a concern that interprovincial travel could increase transmission in B.C. The centre’s modelling projects that infection rates will decline if British Columbians limit their contacts to 40 or even 50 per cent of normal.

COVID-19: Parts of Surrey grapple with high rates of infection, low rates of vaccination