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Doctors, Ryan Reynolds and other celebs team up to tackle vaccine hesitancy


CALGARY — Doctors and other front-line professionals, backed by Canadian celebrities, have banded together to get accurate vaccine information to those most at risk of contracting COVID-19. 

The This Is Our Shot campaign launched Wednesday was driven largely by groups that have been reaching out to and advocating for racialized communities bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The goal is to dispel myths and to answer questions in more than two dozen languages. 

Celebrities, including actor Ryan Reynolds, crooner Michael Buble and Olympic hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser, are pushing the campaign by posting photos of themselves on social media wearing This Is Our Shot T-shirts.

"For me, it's about leveraging the docs and people who are on the front lines who understand the science and can answer legitimate questions that Canadians have," said "Dragon's Den" personality Arlene Dickinson, who is also taking part. 

Vancouver emergency physician Dr. Navdeep Grewal, who works with a group providing culturally appropriate pandemic outreach to the South Asian community, said some concerns, such as whether vaccines were developed too quickly, cut across ethnic lines.

Other worries are more specific: for example, are the shots religiously sanctioned?

"They're wondering if it's vegetarian and, yes, the vaccines are all vegan, the ones that we have so far."

Grewal suggested a small subset of the population is steadfastly against vaccines and tends to be the loudest. But most are at least thinking about getting a shot.

"Those are the ones that we have the best opportunity of reaching with campaigns like this."   

Dr. Anahi Perlas, an anesthesiologist with a group involved with Toronto's Latin American community, said many are eager to get a shot, but there are some misgivings around safety.

"For newcomers to Canada, in particular, they may be a little more subject to misinformation and just following whatever trends they hear on social media," she said. 

Her group has been looking to existing Spanish-language radio, TV and online media to get the message out, she said.

The campaign was to hold a virtual town hall Wednesday night moderated by Olympian Clara Hughes and featuring a question-and-answer session with doctors from various ethnic groups.

Dr. Cora Constantinescu is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary and also runs a vaccine hesitancy clinic. She said everyone is just trying to make a safe decision. 

"They need to have the information put to them in a tailored, personalized way, which is why it's so crucial to have grassroots approach to hesitancy," said Constantinescu, who belongs to the 19 to Zero coalition working to shift public perceptions about COVID-19 and vaccines. It's also a This Is Our Shot partner. 

She said the vaccine hesitant are most likely to listen to trusted friends, family members and health-care providers. Convenience and accessibility of vaccine appointments is also a key consideration, she added.

There have been other efforts to tackle vaccine hesitancy in vulnerable groups. 

Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, one of the organizers of a vaccination clinic at Cargill's meat-packing plant south of Calgary, said 75 to 80 per cent of workers have signed up for appointments. 

"That took a lot of work in terms of trust-building and making sure that we were able to provide information and answer all the questions," he said. 

"Vaccine hesitancy, while it exists, can be dealt with simply with being available for communications and helping people feel more comfortable."

The workers' union has held vaccine town halls and materials have been made available in different languages, as most employees are newcomers. 

Cargill's slaughterhouse was the site of a major outbreak last year. Nearly half of its 2,200 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Two provinces away, anyone booking a vaccine in Manitoba is now able to do so in more than 100 languages or can request a professional interpreter for an appointment.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been criticized for suggesting that hesitancy among Indigenous communities in northern Alberta might be one reason why there has been a lower vaccine uptake in the Fort McMurray, Alta., area than elsewhere in the province. 

Marlene Poitras, regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said in a news release that leaders have been vigilant in addressing vaccine hesitancy, some of which she said is rooted in a history of experimentation on Indigenous peoples.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 28, 2021. 

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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