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Public Health brings equity focus to vaccine accessibility in Nova Scotia

Photo: The Public Health Mobile Unit gave more than 550 vaccines during the Saltscapes Expo in October. Pictured: PHMU Admin, Krista Farr and Public Health Nurse, Nina Springer.

Vaccines are a safe and effective preventative health measure that save lives. Supporting access to free, routine vaccines has always been a core part of Public Health work. Over the past few years, this has become a much bigger undertaking with the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, while continuing to support a robust annual influenza vaccine campaign.

In 2021 Public Health's Outreach Immunization teams went mobile, bringing the COVID-19 vaccine to communities across the province and ensuring everyone had an opportunity to be vaccinated. This year, the provincial Public Health Mobile Units (PHMU) joined them in offering COVID-19, high-dose influenza and standard influenza vaccines, alongside their mobile testing work. 

In just the first two months of the fall immunization campaign, Public Health teams administered close to 12,000 doses of COVID-19 and influenza vaccines. Through their efforts, rural and diverse communities have had better access to immunization, helping to ease the burden of travel and other barriers.

Providing additional access to immunization has been a game changer. A recent survey showed that 46% of those who received their COVID-19 vaccines at a Public Health clinic would not have been vaccinated if not for the local service. This shows the significant impact of this service among those who live in rural areas.

“Offering immunization clinics throughout rural Nova Scotia reduces barriers for some communities experiencing vulnerabilities,” explained Dana Trefry, Health Protection Consultant and Manager of the Northern Zone Outreach Immunization team. “Staff often hear directly from community members how happy they are to see our mobile unit roll into their towns. By bringing preventative healthcare to areas that may not have any and creating the ability for clients to walk into our clinics without an appointment, we are living the concept of meeting people where they are.”

Public Health also works closely with First Nations partners to offer clinics locally that are culturally competent and respectful. These clinics help people who may be vaccine hesitant, or have had prior negative experiences accessing healthcare, feel comfortable accessing care from a Public Health Nurse in their community.

In Black communities, this work has taken a new approach this year with the launch of Black Health and Wellness Clinics, in partnership with Black community leaders. The intention of these clinics is to provide more services in one place for ease of access – a long-term project that will rely on collaboration between different parts of the healthcare system and community partners. 

Focused outreach clinics also extend to people who are at risk of being missed by traditional vaccine clinics, such as newcomers to Canada, people facing housing or economic insecurity, or those who do not have a family doctor or nurse practitioner. Through this work, Public Health has enhanced connection and collaboration with Family Resource Centres and organizations like the Bridge Shelter, North Grove, Ally Centre, The Shepherd’s Lunch Room and others across the province.

“We see it as our role to follow the lead of our partners in community and adapt our clinics in ways that best meet the needs of diverse communities across Nova Scotia,” said Public Health Mobile Unit Manager Beth Gillis. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach in outreach work; we’re proud to be flexible and adaptable to community needs, doing our best to address specific barriers and bringing immunization access directly to people across the province.” 

All the work that happens in the public-facing clinics is made possible by those working behind the scenes. Public Health’s BioDepot (Biologicals Depot) is the central hub for all publicly funded (free) vaccines in the province, including COVID-19, influenza, routine and emergency vaccines. This fall, they have delivered over half a million doses to providers across the province. 

The team works tirelessly to ensure vaccines are properly taken care of and that they’re available to those who need them in a way that is equitable, fair and minimizes waste. This means ensuring vaccine is distributed appropriately across the province to providers, and that proper storage and handling practices are in place once delivered. They also go the extra mile to ensure communities have a voice in how vaccines are delivered, for example some First Nations communities may prefer to have Public Health host clinics, while others prefer to have vaccine administered by a local healthcare provider. The BioDepot makes sure vaccines are delivered in a way that meets their unique needs. 

“Immunization is an integral aspect of Public Health, and the BioDepot is responsible for the safe distribution of all publicly funded vaccines to healthcare providers who do the important work of immunization throughout the province,” said Laurie Pike, Manager Health Protection with the BioDepot. “We balance a well-structured distribution program to ensure healthcare providers can access vaccine in a timely and predictable way, while remaining flexible to meet the changing needs of the healthcare system and of Nova Scotians.” 

The Public Health staff who are part of the distribution and administration of vaccines see their work in communities as something much more than immunization. Their passion for supporting Nova Scotians has allowed them to develop important relationships in communities across the province where they regularly have folks asking questions about navigation to other services, eligibility for vaccines, how to book appointments – all while provide lifesaving vaccines. 

In recognition of their work, the provincial Public Health Mobile Unit and BioDepot teams have been nominated as Patient Safety Champions, joining impressive colleagues from other parts of Nova Scotia Health. The nomination shows how their commitment to accessibility, fairness and equity has a real impact on the lives of the people they serve. Congratulations to all team members on this well-deserved honour.

Photo: The Public Health Mobile Unit gave more than 550 vaccines during the Saltscapes Expo in October. Pictured: PHMU Admin, Krista Farr and Public Health Nurse, Nina Springer.

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