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Fighting health care barriers with the Ottawa Health Team

July 27, 2021
Feature Stories

Six masked outreach workers standing about two meters apart from each other posing on a road.
An outreach team working on the ground to provide information and support for residents who want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Image courtesy of Ottawa Health Team.

With patio season in full swing and vaccinations underway, it may feel like the pandemic is almost over. But for the Ottawa Health Team, there is still a lot of work ahead.

Even before the pandemic many residents faced barriers to health care, and over the past year and a half those challenges have only increased. The Ottawa Health Team is still working to make sure everyone has access to the information, services and support they need as we work towards community immunity.

Emergency response in the community

Just before the pandemic began, the Province of Ontario introduced specialized health teams to provide a new way of caring for patients right in the communities where they live. The Ottawa Health Team was one of the first of these teams, and they had just started their work when COVID-19 hit Ottawa.

They moved quickly to help people struggling in the pandemic. They brought partners together to make a COVID-19 Community Response Team, including Ottawa Public Health, community health centres, social service agencies and primary care practices. Together, this team supports those disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as racialized residents, immigrants, people with low income and those who are street-involved or living in shelters.

Changing the way communities get support

Throughout the pandemic the Ottawa Health Team has provided information and support for residents who face barriers to staying safe and accessing health care. These barriers include not having Wi-Fi, work hours that conflict with testing or vaccination hours, language barriers, or lack of access to a computer or phone to get information online or to book an appointment.

It can be difficult to self-isolate after testing positive for COVID-19, especially for those who live with many others, or don’t have sick days to take time off work. The team created a referral process to provide practical and financial aid to high-risk people who are self-isolating, such as helping them find a free place to self-isolate, or get necessities like groceries, diapers or cleaning supplies. To date, this initiative has helped more than 887 individuals and families.

Many Ottawa residents’ first language is not English or French. In early March, the team launched the Ottawa Immigrant COVID-19 Resource Line for Somali and Arabic speakers. This phone line provides callers with information on testing and vaccines in the language they are most comfortable using.

Working towards community immunity

True community immunity can’t be achieved until everyone in the city is protected. Now that vaccines are more readily available, the Ottawa Health Team partners have shifted their attention to ensuring that everyone who wants a vaccine has the information and ability to get one. “Outreach with resident and local leaders builds knowledge and confidence,” says Kelli Tonner, Executive Director for the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre. “Outreach must be done before offering testing and vaccines. Dropping a clinic in a neighbourhood without any advance work doesn’t work.”

Using data provided by Ottawa Public Health, the team makes connections with social service agencies and community associations. Together, they figure out the best way to approach a given community, identify any barriers they face and deliver information and services. They reach out in several languages and a variety of ways, including door-to-door visits, online information sessions, via community leaders, WhatsApp groups and more.

The team has people on the ground in the communities they serve providing details on vaccine clinic options such as those at pop-ups, high rise buildings, mass clinics and pharmacies. They help with appointment cards, transportation and anything else residents might need to get to a vaccine clinic.

At the end of the day the work of the Ottawa Health Team is all about removing barriers and making sure health care is accessible to everyone, regardless of circumstance. Through their work, Ottawa is moving closer to a new normal where barriers that existed before the pandemic are gone. “We’re not trying to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic,” asserts Tonner. “We have an opportunity to address health inequities. So we’re trying to make it better and move forward, while continuing to use the supports put in place for vulnerable communities. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to work differently, and we can never go back to the way it was.”


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Heather Badenoch


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