VANCOUVER -- After hundreds of people were left without vaccinations despite waiting hours in line, two of the province’s top health officials have apologized for what critics describe as the byproduct of a botched communications strategy.

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Fraser Health president and CEO Dr. Victoria Lee both apologized for the surprise “pop-up” vaccination clinics in communities seeing high rates of COVID-19 infections. The clinics were held with little or no announcement from public health officials. 

Experts worry there could be lasting effects due to the poor communication, ranging from vaccine confusion or hesitancy to distrust of government.

“If we’re having a rumour-based vaccine distribution strategy that privileges the kind of people that are in the loop with those networks, who are on certain types of social media, who maybe hear from their friends and may be hearing this in English, that group doesn’t necessarily overlap with the essential workers or people living in the areas with highest prevalence of COVID,” said Heidi Tworek, associate professor at UBC’s School of Public Policy. “This potentially undermines trust in the vaccine rollout strategy if it feels arbitrary and hasn’t been communicated fairly.”

The concerns were echoed by one of the region’s leading epidemiologists.

“This is a negative experience that might discourage people and we certainly don’t want that,” said Dr. Brian Conway. “This may not always be true, but it speaks of a lack of organization and a lack of planning on behalf of the health authorities and public health officials.”

Provincial health officer apologizes and explains

In her opening remarks at Thursday’s briefing, Henry characterized the pop-up vaccination clinics as “new and innovative ways” of reaching thousands for vaccinations. When Henry opened the floor to questions, CTV News suggested that people who had had to take time off of work and were frustrated with the experience might characterize the clinics differently and asked if she took responsibility. She did.

“Absolutely, you know we are concerned about the way they rolled out,” she said. “These were done with the right intentions, that people were notified through means and as you say, it got a life of its own and that was not anticipated, on social media in particular.”

While B.C.’s Health Minister promised to do better when it comes to communication, Henry said there were other factors at play, though she didn’t get into specifics.

“There were some operational things that were done or not done that caused a lot of frustration, and I can see that,” she explained. “The intent was to try and reach those people in those communities that we know have challenging times and where there are barriers or there's challenges in getting access and people have not been registering.”

The pop-ups in COVID-19 hotspots are now suspended until public health officials can get a better handle on how to plan and promote them more equitably. They acknowledged some people who didn’t even live in the targeted areas were getting vaccinated. With pharmacies essentially out of AstraZeneca vaccine and none forecast to arrive, the age-based rollout is continuing and officials are encouraging everyone to register so that they can book an appointment when their age bracket is eligible. 

Government trust further eroded?

The NDP government has faced increasing criticism over its lack of transparency with basic information freely shared in other provinces and jurisdictions. Earlier this year, they came under fire after CTV News revealed they had quietly commissioned a report into COVID-19 infections in care homes, which they received two days before the election and did not disclose.  

Despite multiple requests over many weeks, the province also won’t reveal how many vaccination appointments have been left vacant, with a dose and health-care worker available but no one there to receive the shot. Standby and cancellation lists aren’t feasible due to the province’s limited information technology.

“What people want is a sense that government knows what they’re doing, they’re explaining why they’re doing it, and they’re communicating with us at every step up the way,” said Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau. “Most of the problems have been around a lack of really clear and effective communication. There has to be that sense of trust between the public and government and at every moment government has a responsibility to figure out how to continually rebuild and maintain trust.”

She points out with so many eligibility streams and different booking systems for pharmacies versus the age-based rollout, people may be confused about where to go and how to get a vaccine.

Tworek adds that in the United States, studies have found that racialized communities widely assumed to be avoiding the shot because of vaccine hesitancy were, in fact, experiencing vaccine confusion about where to go and how to get one.

“There are concrete consequences to having confused or poor communication that is an afterthought,” she said, noting that BIPOC citizens may not speak English but are far more likely to work high-risk jobs in the food supply system or health care, putting themselves at high risk of contracting the coronavirus while sustaining the rest of us.

“Communication is essential in a health emergency and we’re seeing the kind of anxiety and stress that’s being created by these pop-up clinics, by the sense of how do you get on a list, where do you go, which pharmacy, which pop-up clinic, social media,” said Furstenau. “My worry and concern right now is the sense that people are on their own.”