Whole community team approach brings COVID-19 vaccines to rural and remote communities

While most Vancouver Islanders have ready access to services and amenities, there are several thousand residents of communities located in areas often accessible only by boat or floatplane.

For the past year, Island Health has been offering whole community COVID-19 vaccine clinics to residents of rural and remote communities who may find it difficult to access clinics located in larger centres. 

Lasqueti Island, near Parksville, is a largely undeveloped, tightly knit community of approximately 450 full-time residents who rely on a foot passenger ferry to get on and off the island.

There is no hydro electricity on Lasqueti Island, and composting toilets and water filtrations systems are the norm.

With only a few vehicles on Lasqueti, many residents walk or cycle to the town centre to pick up groceries or visit the health clinic. It’s a different way of life where people live off of the land and rely on their neighbours and greater community.

Alyssa Carmichael, an Island Health public health nurse, has worked with a dedicated team of immunizers since March 2021 to bring COVID-19 vaccines to residents of Lasqueti Island using the whole community approach.

She and her team have to date made the one hour journey by water taxi seven times, often in rough seas, to ensure residents of Lasqueti who want to be vaccinated are provided that opportunity.

I’ve heard it is one of the rougher crossings and it’s not for people who experience sea-sickness. Each visit has been an adventure,” says Carmichael.

“These clinics are so important because a virus like COVID can travel through a community of this size very quickly. Given the challenges that come with living in a remote location, I think many Lasqueti residents realize how devastating a COVID outbreak can be.”

Carmichael’s team includes registered nurses Laurie Parton, Charmian McMillen, Heidi Nikkiforuk, Jillian Kim, and Carrie Carle and Dianne McClure, a long time public health nurse who travels to Lasqueti on a weekly basis to provide primary care. The team is grateful to be able to bring the vaccine to Lasqueti.

“As public health nurses, we abide by a prevention model and we really feel we are saving lives with each vaccine we administer,” says Carmichael.

“Lasqueti residents have been so welcoming and appreciative and building those relationships has been wonderful. One elderly gentleman walked one and a half hours just to get his vaccine. Knowing we can help him and his community to reduce their risk is extremely powerful.”

Public health nurse Jaime Guthrie has also travelled with her nurse colleagues by boat and vehicle to provide whole community clinics to residents of Quadra Island, Cortes Island, Surge Narrows (on Read Island), Zeballos and Tahsis.

“For many of these isolated areas the only way in or out is by private boat. In addition to financial barriers, at certain times of the year boat travel can be treacherous. Plus, it’s a lengthy trip and people need transportation once they reach Vancouver Island,” says Guthrie.

“Bringing the COVID vaccine to these communities and connecting with residents has provided our team with a tremendous amount of satisfaction – and people are so grateful that we are providing that service.”

“We’ve had the most amazing response – our immunization rates for COVID in many of these rural and remote areas are far higher than I could have imagined,” she adds.

Coordinating these clinics is also a team approach, with Island Health working closely with community leaders and volunteers to organize whole community clinics in rural and remote locations including Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Tofino Mayor Dan Law, a retired public health nurse who worked on the front lines during the H1N1 pandemic, has been supporting the clinics by helping to get the word out via social media and radio.

“This whole community approach to vaccine clinics and delivery, and close communication with all the partners has been excellent – it really is a great method of healthcare delivery for rural and remote communities,” he says.

“I really can’t see any other way of doing this. We are a very small community and when you have the whole community getting together for a singular purpose, it works even better from a social standpoint.”

Whole community clinics are aimed at providing COVID-19 vaccines to all eligible people age five and older. Depending on the population size and demand in rural and remote communities, future COVID-19 vaccinations may be provided at pharmacies, regular public health clinics or at specific COVID-19 clinics.

About Island Health:

Island Health provides health care and support services to more than 850,000 people on Vancouver Island, the islands in the Salish Sea and the Johnstone Strait, and mainland communities north of Powell River.

With more than 23,000 staff and over 2,500 physician partners, 4,000 volunteers, and the dedicated support of foundations and auxiliaries, Island Health delivers a broad range of health services, including: public health services, primary health care, home and community care, mental health and addictions services, acute care in hospitals, and much more across a huge, geographically diverse region.
Central/North Island media inquiries
Dominic Abassi

Cowichan/South Island media inquiries:
Andrew Leyne