Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is free, easy and — for some residents Friday — more accessible than ever.
Supplied with 100 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, a team of provincial immunizers and volunteers spent hours working to vaccinate a steady lineup of newcomer, Indigenous and homeless community members at a one-day pop-up at Knox United Church in Winnipeg’s hot-spot central neighbourhood.
"It was quite simple," resident Marlyn Martinez said after getting her shot. "I saw (a notice) in my building in the lobby, and it said 18 and over so I wanted to go for sure — right away."
Though she lives in a neighbourhood identified as high-risk, Martinez said she "might not" have got the vaccine if it wasn’t so close by. She might have risked a trip on bus to get to a clinic if she felt case numbers were dangerously high, but a nearby site made the decision a no-brainer, she said.
"I love this more because everyone is spread out more, they’re not concentrated in a herd, there’s a short waiting time," she said. "It’s convenient for people who can’t really walk and who care about their health to come to a place that’s right in the area."
Under the vaulted ceiling and towering stained-glass windows of the church sanctuary, community volunteers mingled with pre-screened residents, helping them fill out consent forms and move through the registration process.
Upstairs, in the small gym, four immunizers set up booths along one wall, administering shots and then directing people to a waiting area.
Merhawit Teklebihan sat patiently among the rows of leather chairs during the mandatory post-injection 15-minute observation period and said she found the process simple and accessible.
"It’s good to take because we have to protect ourselves and each other," she said, smiling behind her mask. "I feel good."
Kuresha Mohamed, another neighbourhood resident, arrived with her daughter, who helped translate for her. The experience was easy, left her feeling safer, she said.
"I was very scared of COVID-19, but now I’m happy," she said.
Knox United pastor Lesley Harrison said the church was approached by the province’s focused immunization team to set up a site for homeless and precariously housed community members to get a shot.
A provincial government spokesperson later said the pop-up site was part of the community-led vaccine programs announced April 20.
"They had heard that we are very accessible to this neighbourhood and that we were becoming a bit of a hub... for all kinds of agencies, organizations, people and food programs," Harrison said, adding the clinic fits seamlessly into the church’s social justice and interfaith-oriented mission.
"We’ve tried to really build those true relationships with people and obviously today that’s paid dividends because people feel safe and comfortable and welcomed, and that’s what we need to get this vaccine progress."
When the clinic opened with a limited cache of doses at 10 a.m., volunteers had to turn away many hopefuls who didn’t meet the eligibility criteria, Harrison said. Still, it presented an opportunity to answer questions and connect community members with resources to navigate the pandemic’s uncertainty.
"Clinics like this provide those spaces where folks can connect with health-care professionals, community workers and advocates and folks who can talk to them about a whole range of needs — not just the vaccine," Uzoma Asagwara, NDP MLA for Union Station, said outside the church.
"It’s about accessibility, it’s about relationships, it’s about trust, it’s about familiarity. Folks have a connection to this community so there’s an inherent trust and comfort level that comes with having folks access a vaccine right here in a space and in a place that they’re already connected to."
Just a handful of shots remained by early afternoon and were certain to be used before the clinic closed. Volunteers said they are all hopeful the province provide more doses for similarly accessible clinics in the days to come.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.