This City Gave Sex Workers Priority Access to COVID Vaccines

Because sex workers are essential workers.
doctor administers pfizer vaccine
Nearly 100 people were vaccinated last week during a pop up vaccine clinic for sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Photo via Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside were prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine last week, and a local organization is trying to make it happen again.

PACE, a sex worker advocacy group, offered the pop-up clinic at its office last Thursday, after getting approval from the local health authority, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH). The team administered 99 vaccinations, with sex workers, including PACE members, making up most of the clients.


“It was low barrier, so we weren’t verifying that people were sex workers, but that’s in order to make it accessible. We did not require IDs or screenshots of ads, because we don’t want to violate people's privacy,” said Lyra McKee, PACE’s co-executive director.

McKee said her group advocated for the first-dose clinic, making the case that sex workers are essential workers. “Vancouver Coastal Health is accommodating to a variety of community groups, recognizing that if they just hold clinics themselves there will be communities they can’t reach,” McKee said.

VCH has prioritized vaccinations for people in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) since January, because those in the neighbourhood often have multiple health conditions or live in shared housing or shelters that make them more susceptible to severe COVID-19 infections. 

Sex workers have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, so getting them vaccinated matters, McKee said. VICE World News previously reported how the pandemic—and accompanying restrictions that prevent closeness—drastically shrunk their incomes, and most sex workers across North America are not eligible for government aid.

“They were faced with the difficult decision of protecting health by following guidelines or continuing to work to get income—and losing safety,” McKee said. “We know sex work is happening and in-person sex workers continue to work.”


Sex workers told VICE World News previously that during the pandemic, people struggling with isolation turned to sex workers for support and intimacy. 

“It’s important to vaccinate sex workers doing that work,” McKee said.

The group wants to host another first dose pop-up clinic, but when and if they can depends on whether British Columbia’s vaccine supply will increase as well as the number of other community groups that are applying to host second rounds of first-dose clinics. 

So far, B.C. has received about 1.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines and administered 81.4 percent of them, but like the rest of the country, it depends on shipments from overseas since Canada doesn’t have the capacity to produce them itself. About 1.3 million of B.C.’s more than 5 million people have received at least one dose of a two-dose vaccine. 

Across Canada, provinces are grappling with the third wave of the pandemic, with vaccination campaigns racing to immunize as many people as possible. There have been 120,000 new COVID-19 cases since Easter alone. Alberta recorded an 11 percent COVID-19 positivity rate on Monday, while Ontario has reported more than 4,000 new cases in a single day several times. Experts have repeatedly urged governments to prioritize at-risk groups.

In more hopeful news, British Columbia’s daily rate of new cases is on a downward trend, but hospitalizations are still increasing. Current restriction in B.C., including new travel bans, will be in place until at least May, B.C. Premier John Horgan said Monday.

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