How local volunteers are helping Toronto's least vaccinated community get shots in arms

There's a push to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19 in the east-end Toronto community of Taylor-Massey, the neighbourhood with the the city's lowest immunization rate.

Only 57% of residents over 18 are immunized against COVID-19 in Taylor-Massey

Community ambassadors stand outside an apartment building in the east end neighbourhood of Massey-Taylor. Volunteers have been knocking on doors in the area to encourage residents to get vaccinated. (Submitted by WoodGreen Community Services)

Community activists and medical professionals in Toronto's east end are making a major push to get more people immunized against COVID-19 in Taylor-Massey, the community with the lowest vaccination rate in the city.

The densely populated, low-income neighbourhood, which includes Crescent Town, is located north of Danforth Avenue and stretches from Main Street in the west to Victoria Park Avenue in the east.

It sits at the bottom of the 140 communities listed in the City of Toronto's vaccine data portal, with only 57 per cent of those 18 and over partially vaccinated and 39 per cent fully vaccinated — much lower than the city's overall rate: 78 per cent of residents 18 and over with their first dose and nearly 50 per cent fully vaccinated. So now, there's a local door-knocking campaign to get doses into arms.

"We recruited community ambassadors who are literally going door-to-door, apartment-to-apartment, trying to build up confidence and deliver vaccines where they're needed," said Dr. Adil Shamji, a physician at Michael Garron Hospital who has worked in vaccine clinics in Taylor-Massey.

In all, those ambassadors speak more than a dozen languages, which is vital in a neighbourhood where nearly half the residents are recent immigrants, mostly South Asian. So far, the group says they've knocked on an estimated 1,800 doors, and nearly 600 doses have been administered.

Why isn't Taylor-Massey a hot spot?

Despite Taylor-Massey's low vaccination numbers, it wasn't included in any of the city's earlier hot-spot postal code campaigns. It's also been omitted from the Home Stretch Vaccine Push, the city's newly announced program to immunize vulnerable communities.

Shamji says geography and demographics may have factored into why city didn't make the community a higher priority for vaccines. Toronto started targeting hot-spot postal codes for immunization campaigns in April with the Team Toronto Sprint Strategy.

Communities surrounding Taylor-Massey have vaccination rates 10 to 20 per cent higher. Shamji says many of them have much higher levels of income.

"Neighbouring communities are a bit more affluent, and that, I suspect, created a bit of a statistical anomaly and so that postal code may not have been flagged," he said.

Community ambassadors for the Taylor-Massey area have been a crucial part of the push to increase vaccine rates in the neighbourhood. (Photo courtesy of WoodGreen Community Services)

Nadjib Alamyar, the manager for newcomer wellness at WoodGreen Community Services, says there's another factor that might have played a role in the decision not to designate Taylor-Massey a hot spot: COVID-19 case counts that were low compared to communities in the northwest, such as Rexdale.

"We were not as badly hit in the initial stages as some of the other communities with similar demographics," Alamyar said.

The Home Stretch Vaccine Push will target Elms–Old Rexdale, Kingsview Village–The Westway, Mount Dennis, Mount Olive-Silverstone-Jamestown, Weston and Englemount-Lawrence — all communities in Toronto's northwest.

According to Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto's associate medical officer of health, Taylor-Massey was not included because the city wanted to focus on one area in the first phase of the program.

"The northwest was chosen for the initial Home Stretch push because of the geographic proximity of several low-coverage areas, which allows us to maximize resources to increase vaccination uptake among harder-to-reach populations," she said.

Dubey says once Toronto Public Health studies how this initial push plays out in the northwest, strategies will be rolled out to areas like Taylor-Massey.

'The power of connection'

The city says 40 per cent of residents in Taylor-Massey speak a language other than English in the home, compared to an average of 26 per cent in Toronto as a whole. Shamji says language barriers and the conflicting information surrounding vaccines have also contributed to the lower immunization numbers.

"I think that's only amplified if you are an immigrant or a newcomer and you are just getting on your feet in a new country and you don't know where to go or who to trust," Shamji said.  

"So it really does become critical to have people from your community that you've learned to trust to help you navigate the plethora of information."

Razia Rashed, one of the community ambassadors taking part in the door-to-door program, says community members have been reacting positively.

"When we knock at the door, we speak their language ... Someone already trusts you because we know their language and culture, and that's very unique," she said.

Alamyar says WoodGreen door-knockers have been hearing from residents who are either vaccine hesitant or simply complacent.

A community volunteer leaves flyers outside a Taylor-Massey resident's home. (Photo courtesy of Bangladeshi-Canadian Community Services)

"A lot of our ambassadors are getting questions on what the brand of vaccines are," he said, adding that some residents are hesitant because they've been hearing from friends about side effects from the shots.

But overall, the program has been successful because of the "power of connection," Alamyar says.

"You suddenly see your neighbour getting vaccinated. Someone is knocking on their door and they say, 'Yes,'" he said.

"Even though you might be complacent, you start to kind of lean towards, like, 'Ok, I might get vaccinated.'" 

With files from Dale Manucdoc