Lower vaccination rates among people who use drugs could lead to serious consequences of COVID-19

As many jurisdictions in Canada begin to ease public health measures aimed at limiting severe cases and deaths from COVID-19, new research from UBC School of Medicine and the BC Center on Substance Use (BCCSU) suggest that many people remain at risk of serious illness.

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The Government of Canada, through its COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, has provided $770,000 in funding to support a study looking at vaccination confidence among people who consume drugs in the Downtown Eastside and Downtown South neighborhoods of Vancouver. Preliminary results from this study revealed that just under two-thirds of the group had received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The researchers recruited 275 people who use drugs and saw them once every two months for a study visit. At the end of January 2022, 64% reported being fully vaccinated after receiving two doses of the vaccine, while 9% had also received a booster dose. 16% were not vaccinated. In comparison, in February 2022, vaccination rates in the general population of British Columbia were 81.1% fully vaccinated, 45.1% had received a booster dose and 14% were still unvaccinated.

“While the vaccination rates we have observed are approaching those seen in the general population of British Columbia, it also reminds us that public health efforts must continue to address mistrust in health care. health and barriers faced by many members of our communities who use drugs. , especially during this time of twin crises – COVID-19 and toxic drug poisonings,” said Dr. Brittany Barker, study co-principal investigator and research scientist at BCCSU and UBC’s Department of Medicine.

“These results remind us that while many people may be ready to put COVID-19 behind us, not everyone in our communities has received the same levels of protection.”
Dr. Hudson Reddon

Like many communities across Canada, Vancouver’s population has a high rate of substance abuse, homelessness, poverty or immunodeficiency, making it particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and serious illness. In addition, many people who use drugs face multiple, overlapping barriers to accessing health care, such as stigma, discrimination and criminalization.

“These results remind us that while many people may be ready to leave COVID-19 behind, not everyone in our communities has received the same levels of protection,” says Dr. Hudson Reddon, co – principal researcher and post-doctoral researcher. PhD student at BCCSU and UBC Department of Medicine. “Public health outreach efforts must continue for at-risk groups, including people who use substances, homeless people and poverty and therefore are generally not well connected to health care.”

Dr. Brittany Barker and Dr. Hudson Reddon

“I know COVID-19 scares a lot of people, but if you’ve fought the war on drugs and scrambled every day to stay alive, it doesn’t matter whether you thrive, besides avoiding care healthcare at all costs because of harmful past and stigmatizing experiences – to the extent that some would risk endocarditis and loss of limb to infection – COVID-19 simply does not register as a priority threat the same way it does for others in the general population,” said Erica Thomson, co-investigator and peer leader of the study.

“We have funded this research to generate evidence that will guide public health officials in their strategies to increase confidence in and use of vaccines, including among our vulnerable urban populations,” said Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair. of the CITF. “It is important that all members of society are properly protected. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not over yet.

In response to these realities, the Government of British Columbia’s COVID-19 immunization plan has prioritized people experiencing housing insecurity, including in the Downtown Eastside, and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has made a number of outreach efforts in the neighborhood. As of March 29, 91% of people ages 18 and older in the local health zone that includes the Downtown Eastside were fully immunized.

The researchers hope these findings will encourage public health professionals across the country to similarly invest in effective vaccine outreach programs to reach vulnerable populations.

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