Surrey neighbourhoods, seeing a large uptick in daily COVID-19 cases, are some of the same ones grappling with some of the lowest vaccination rates.
But that wasn’t surprising to Dr. Navdeep Grewal, a physician at Delta and Mount Saint Joseph hospital.
The latest localized data was first obtained by the Vancouver Sun, from an internal report for the week of April 23 to 29. In it, the distribution of B.C. coronavirus cases broken down into local neighbourhoods, different from what has been released since the pandemic began early in 2020.
Currently, officials release weekly case counts segmented by Local Health Service areas, which includes groupings of cities with populations the size of Surrey (over 500,000 citizens).
News agencies across the province, including Black Press Media, have asked in the past for more detailed breakdowns of COVID cases.
Other regions in the country, such as Toronto and central Alberta, are seeing steady daily case counts reported as part of neighbourhood data.
Grewal said this localized data “wouldn’t have made any difference in the first wave,” but it could have been helpful in the second and third waves.
“I agree that because case counts at that point were so low that if there had been additional cases in certain neighbourhoods, there certainly would have been stigmatization and racism directed at those specific neighbourhoods,” said Grewal, who is part of the South Asian COVID Task Force, which has been advocating and working with health officials to provide culturally relevant information about the virus and the vaccine.
However, she said she wasn’t surprised when she first took a look at the report.
“It was exactly as I thought, and it fit in quite well with where we were seeing the targeting vaccination drives … those same neighborhoods that were being described as high-risk.”
Of the 38 high-transmission neighbourhoods in B.C., eight of those are in Surrey.
The BC CDC breaks Surrey into two sub-regions: Surrey (the northern part of the city) and South Surrey/White Rock. The city consists of nine communities: Cloverdale, East Newton, West Newton, Fleetwood, Guildford, North Surrey, Panorama and Whalley and South Surrey.
By the end of April, Surrey had about 26 per cent of the overall cases, 33,146 in total, but only accounts for about 11 per cent of B.C.’s total population.
During the week of April 23 to 29, the Whalley, North Surrey, East Newton and West Newton communities were averaging more than 40 cases per 100,000 a day. However, the report shows both West and East Newton saw a decrease while Whalley saw an increase.
Meantime, Guildford, Fleetwood, Cloverdale and Panorama saw an average of 20 to 40 cases per 100,000 a day, with both Cloverdale and Panorama seeing a decrease from the week prior.
South Surrey had the lowest daily rate, with 10 to 20 cases per 100,000 a day.
During a last-minute media conference Friday (May 7), following the release of the leaked documents, deputy provincial health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson said “one of the things to keep in mind is that positivity rates at very small geographic levels become highly unstable, especially when you use a fairly short period of time to report them” in reference to a question from a reporter about positivity rates being more than 20 per cent in some Surrey communities.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry added, “That’s one of the reasons why we look at these data over time.”
“It is about what is the trend that’s happening? How many tests are done? How many people is it, because we’ve targeted certain areas for testing that we’ve had an increase. Is it because we’ve done testing in a known outbreak in a food plant in that area that has meant that we have uncovered a number of positive people who may be asymptomatic but contacts?”
A comparison of the data shows that some of the same communities seeing higher cases are grappling with lower vaccination rates.
Between 21 and 40 per cent of people aged 18 and over in Whalley, Guildford, North Surrey and East and West Newton have had their first dose. In Fleetwood, Panorama, Cloverdale and South Surrey, between 41 and 60 per cent of those aged 18 and over have had their first dose.
Grewal said public health was trying to target populations by having vaccine clinics in high-transmission neighbourhoods “without actually making the data public.”
“Even though the information wasn’t new or surprising to anybody, the fact that it wasn’t given to the public to learn to decipher on their own and do with it what they would, I think was a little bit of a disappointment for many people.”
Kulpreet Singh, the founder of South Asian Mental Health Alliance,
said it was “disappointing but not surprising” that the government was not providing the full details to the public.
“It definitely could have helped to slow the spread,” he noted. “Data is never something that we should hesitate from if we want to have an educated and informed society.”
Singh said having that level of localized data could have helped healthcare professionals and advocates to analyze it and then go out into the community and find out “what is the pulse of the community,” such as the reasons for not vaccinating and if it’s only about hesitancy.
“I think people who are active in public health, in the media, in the government, they reside in this different sphere of information. People who are busy working in the frontline, busy taking care of their families, they’re not as engaged with the updates.”
Those same community breakdowns were used in B.C. CDC’s BC COVID-19 Survey on Population, Experience, Action and Knowledge (SPEAK), which was rolled out during the first wave of the pandemic with results released in early December 2020, during the second wave of the pandemic.
When the results of that first survey were released (the BCCDC currently has a second SPEAK survey underway), some pointed out the disparities between the north and south ends of the city and the need for better communication in those communities, specifically multilingual messaging.
When it came to being able to work remotely, 43.7 per cent of West Newton residents and 49.3 per cent of East Newton residents said they were able to. That’s compared to 51.5 per cent for all of Surrey and 54.7 per cent for Fraser Health.
As for future financial stress, such as making ends meet, 64.5 per cent in West Newton and 47.7 per cent in East Newton said their “financial stress will be worse if the public health response to the pandemic does not change for the next few months.” That’s compared to 48.4 per cent in all of Surrey and 43.5 per cent in Fraser Health.
When it came to difficulty accessing a family doctor, 71.5 per cent in West Newton and 72.2 per cent in East Newton said they had “difficulty accessing health care since the coronavirus pandemic.” That’s compared to 61.6 per cent in all of Surrey and 55.1 per cent in Fraser Health.
“In summary, Newton residents felt greater financial stress, worked more essential jobs, were more concerned for their health, had less access to a doctor, and had a lower sense of community belonging. These are all factors that could contribute to a greater spread of COVID,” Paul Hillsdon, a Surrey resident and urban planner/geographer said on Twitter when the results were released.
“Similar COVID spikes have occurred in other South Asian communities, including in England, Ontario, and Alberta. Clearly our health-care systems, and broader social and community institutions, have neglected the unique needs and realities of this diaspora.”
Singh said the things advocates have been pushing for the last year, such as multilingual messaging, disaggregated race-based data and culturally appropriate outreach, should continue beyond the pandemic. He noted Fraser Health has been going to community gathering places, such gurdwara, community centres, shopping malls and grocery stores to help register people for vaccinations.
“That’s great. If that had been started three or four months ago, the paces of public awareness and reducing hesitancy would have come around sooner.”
Meantime, Fraser Health has been holding targeted vaccine clinics, including one at Gurdwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib on Friday (May 7). The week prior, the health authority registered more than 400 people.
Why did you prefer to get vaccinated at the Gurdwara?
A Pakistani Muslim woman: I speak Punjabi & this is a comfortable place for me.
An elder Sikh uncle, newly immigrated: I don't have a vehicle or a bus pass, nor do I speak English.
A young parent: I trust the people here.
— Kulpreet Singh (@kulpreetsingh) May 11, 2021
Singh said he had the opportunity to speak with more than 50 people at the clinic that day, and he said for them, “access was the biggest issue.” He pointed to some who didn’t drive, while others didn’t know how to register initially but then found out from the gurdwara and one man who was a new immigrant.
“It only became apparent by talking to them,” noted Singh, adding that we need to begin new conversations about how we do public outreach.
– With files from Ashley Wadhwani