In Surrey, silence then sorry - The Orca

In Surrey, silence then sorry

Rob Shaw 2

‘Abandoning the basics of communication’ – Rob Shaw on vaccination pop-up clinics.

It was a sight like nothing seen in British Columbia so far in this pandemic: Hundreds of people lined up around government-run tents at a park in Surrey, pleading for vaccines and growing frustrated at health officials for withholding basic information.

It started as an operational headache for the Fraser Health Authority – one of several new “pop-up clinics” at Newton Athletic Park that, through word-of-mouth and social media, managed to attract more people than available vaccines.

But through a truly stupefying amount of bungling, layered upon hours of persistence silence, it grew into something bigger.

Within 24 hours, there were apologies forthcoming from Fraser Health CEO Victoria Lee, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“These pop-up clinics have not been successful because they’ve undermined confidence in the process, while immunizing a lot of people in critical neighbourhoods,” Dix told the legislature.

“We’ve got to learn the lessons, and we’ve got to do better, and Fraser Health will do so.”

It was an unmitigated public relations disaster, the likes of which B.C. hasn’t seen during its 14-month pandemic response.

How did it happen?

To chart the course, you have to go back to April 19 when government unveiled a new vaccination strategy to target 16 “high priority” communities where COVID-19 transmission was worst – mainly in and around Surrey, Langley and Port Coquitlam.

It wasn’t stated explicitly at the time, but health officials had convinced themselves they needed to try new and innovative ways to reach the public, outside of the registration system they’d been heavily promoting and the highly-watched twice-weekly briefings with Dr. Henry.

The idea of “pop-up clinics” was born, where officials would occasionally take whatever vaccines were available and hold spur-of-the-moment vaccination clinics at whatever locations they could find, without telling anyone they would be there, what ages were eligible, or how many shots were available.

If that sounds like a disastrous way to distribute the most sought-after commodity in the world today – well, you’d be right.

By abandoning the basics of communication, Fraser Health left the playing field wide open for rumour and speculation. Inaccurate information spread like wildfire, through WhatsApp and text chains, from worried and anxious residents trying to get themselves and their families vaccinated.

If that sounds like a disastrous way to distribute the most sought-after commodity in the world today – well, you’d be right.

By Wednesday, people had camped out overnight at Newton Athletic Park and a line of more than 500 people snaked around the playing fields by 7:30 a.m.

Videos of the ballooning crowd went viral on social media. Still, Fraser Health stayed dark, refusing to acknowledge the clinic was even happening – even as reporters saw it playing out with their own eyes.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people stood out in the cold and occasional rain for more than five hours, just hoping they were at the right spot to get a shot.

Then the vaccines ran out.

Health officials had been distributing tickets to those in line, which people, in the absence of actual information, interpreted to mean a guarantee of a shot. Suddenly, hundreds were holding worthless tickets. Some started yelling in frustration. They’d skipped work, dragged their families down to the site, and stood outside for most of the day…for nothing.

Back at the legislature, hiding under silence was not an option.

The NDP’s Surrey MLAs were undoubtedly feeling the heat from constituents furious at the treatment they received from Fraser Health.

The Opposition BC Liberals smelled blood. They kickstarted question period with Shirley Bond calling the situation “total chaos.”

Dix tried to deflect, arguing whatever was happening on the ground in Surrey was dwarfed by the fact thousands of people received vaccines across the region that day. It was the political equivalent of trying to put out a house fire with a garden hose.

By Thursday morning, everyone was in full retreat.

Fraser Health’s Lee held a snap telephone press conference to offer limp apologies. Dix was pummelled in the house for a second day, though this time he abandoned his untenable position of defending the rollout and tossed both Fraser Health and its secretive pop-up clinics straight under the bus.

The blame train rolled through Dr. Henry’s station later that afternoon, where she too had to apologize for being associated with Fraser Health’s decision-making.

It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting – the insinuation that residents of Surrey are too dumb to understand the government’s existing vaccine registration process, or that the language barrier was the problem.

“There were some operational things that were done, or not done, that caused a lot of frustration,” said Henry.

“I can see that and I absolutely apologize to people for the miscommunications and the confusion. That was certainly not the intent, the intent was to try and reach those people in those communities that we know have challenging times and where there are barriers or challenges in getting access and people are not registering.”

She added: “We’re working on how we connect with people to make sure their questions are answered in their language, in a way they understand.”

It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting – the insinuation that residents of Surrey are too dumb to understand the government’s existing vaccine registration process, or that the language barrier was the problem.

Silence is not a language. There’s no barrier to understanding it. Public comprehension is not the problem with an entire health authority offers nothing to comprehend.

The pop-up clinic fiasco also exposed some dark and uncomfortable undertones in B.C.’s current vaccination strategy.

The majority of those lined up at the pop-up clinics in the hot zones were primarily non-English-speaking members of immigrant families from the South Asian community.

They were left to stand for hours in a field, to get access to the same vaccine that wealthier (and whiter) British Columbians could get in privilege and comfort with 15-minute appointments at pharmacies.

No one from Point Grey or Oak Bay would be treated the way residents in Surrey were treated.

Dr. Henry wouldn’t say with certainty that pop-up clinics are a dead idea, going forward.

But politically, let’s be clear: They are dead.

Surrey is one of the most important electoral areas in the entire province, and the last thing the NDP wants is any arm of its government treating those voters like citizens of a third-world country forced to line up for humanitarian aid.

So, the pop-up clinics are over.

But the damage they leave behind to public confidence in the vaccination process is long-lasting and immeasurable.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.