About 300 people a day, refugees without an OHIP card, are being vaccinated at Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre. CNS photo/Kamil Krzaczynski, Reuters

Those without OHIP can get vaccinated, no questions asked, at FCJ Refugee Centre

  • May 21, 2021

At the FCJ Refugee Centre, 300 people a day are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — people who otherwise can’t get a jab.

Before refugee claimants can get a shot in the arm they need help getting around a single line in the provincial booking system that asks for an OHIP number. In most cases, asylum seekers in Ontario aren’t eligible for the Ontario Health Insurance Plan and don’t have OHIP cards.

But they are eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Since the beginning of the vaccine rollout, the Ontario Ministry of Health has insisted that the vaccine would be available to all, regardless of immigration status. But still that line in the online booking form stops would-be refugees cold when they try to get a jab.

“It would be good if the province removed that number, that requirement,” said FCJ Refugee Centre co-director Loly Rico. “Everybody would be able to book.”

Instead the province has instituted a system of temporary numbers to get people past that line in the booking system. However, getting the temporary number is not simple. The problem was obvious as soon as the vaccine rollout began and people the FCJ Centre serves started telling Rico they couldn’t book an appointment.

“This shows, with the pandemic, that there is a big gap,” said Rico. “The province should open the health system to anyone living in Ontario. All these people are collaborating and producing in the economy of the province. For the public health of the province, they should open (access to) the health card.”

Theoretically, would-be refugees could go to drug stores, but some drug stores are asking for OHIP numbers, even though the province doesn’t require the drug stores to collect that information.

Getting vaccinated does require creating a health record, but a health record simply means a name, age, gender and either a phone number or email address. Some sort of identification is necessary so that whichever agency, hospital or pharmacy is administering the shots can verify who the patient is.

It’s part of the nature of being a refugee that ID documents are always a problem. Under the new program, FCJ is accepting government-issued documents from other jurisdictions, even if they are expired. They will also take a passport, driver’s licence, piece of registered mail, a pay stub or a student card.

In a release, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said the city’s partnership with FCJ is “an important step towards an equitable process that ensures all those who want a vaccine — regardless of their immigration status — can get one.”

It’s not a perfect solution, said Rico.

“This is a City of Toronto initiative. Many of the refugee claimants live outside of Toronto and we don’t know what the other municipalities are doing,” she said.

The program, however, is a great example of what the Faithful Companions of Jesus originally hoped the FCJ Refugee Centre would do, said Rico.

“In the 30 years (since FCJ Refugee Centre was founded) we have been trying to cover the gaps, the needs of the refugee claimants and precarious migrants,” she said. “We welcome the stranger. There is a motto with the FCJ Sisters that ‘The door is open.’ ”

Was Rico surprised to see that refugees were once again on the outside looking in when it came to the vaccine rollout?

“No. We were not surprised,” she said.

Anybody who doesn’t have an OHIP card, whether they’re a refugee or not, can call FCJ at (416) 469-9754 ext. 230 and 232 or on WhatsApp at (437) 217-3786 Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or e-mail vaccine@fcjrefugeecentre.org. You can also book in person at 208 Oakwood Ave.

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