24/7 vaccine clinics an 'essential' next step in Toronto's immunization campaign, advocates say

Community health and labour advocates say Toronto should  keep its mass immunization clinics open 24/7 as soon as possible to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

3 mass immunization clinics opening next week will operate from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Toronto estimates it will be able to vaccinate between 500,000 and 975,000 residents per month at the peak of its immunization campaign. (Grant Linton/CBC)

Community health and labour advocates say Toronto should  keep its mass immunization clinics open 24/7 as soon as possible to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

"I think a 24 hour system is essential and, frankly, it shouldn't wait," said Pam Frache, and organizer with the Workers' Action Centre.

Frache was reacting to news that three of the city's nine mass immunization clinics will open on March 17, operating initially from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days per week, and that there will be no immediate move to around-the-clock vaccinations. Appointments are for now only available to residents born in 1941 or earlier.

"We are long past the days of standard employment of nine-to-five," Frache said.

The city has signalled a willingness to expand the hours of its mass immunization clinics when there is an adequate supply of vaccines, though planners have not yet identified exactly when that may be possible.

Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who is overseeing the city's vaccine operations, said Toronto will consider moving to a 24-hour schedule, but only after the city's nine mass clinics reach maximum capacity.

"We would need the sustained and reliable availability of vaccines to make it happen. And we would need to know that there is a drive and an interest and a need from a public and a client perspective, which I'm sure there will be," said Pegg during a Wednesday news conference.

Coun. Shelley Carroll, who represents Ward 17, Don Valley North, said anxious residents are already expressing concerns to her about the possibility of limited hours at the clinics. She said expanding operating hours will be needed.

"That's really key in getting everyone vaccinated," said Carroll, who planned to introduce a motion at city council this week asking Toronto to explore "round-the-clock vaccinations."

Carroll withdrew the motion after learning that similar plans are already in the works, though they remain without a target date. She said hiring additional staff is the biggest impediment to 24-hour operations, though she said people are being trained now.

"We've got to make it as convenient as possible, and have as much equity of access to those appointments as possible," Carroll added.

Community health worker Rejwan Karim says Toronto will need to implement a variety of strategies to improve vaccine access. (Zoom)

'People are busy during the daytime'

The availability of 24/7 vaccination appointments is said to be an important element in the city's efforts to make it as easy as possible for residents to become vaccinated.

Rejan Karim, a program manager with the multi-service agency Access Alliance, said people juggling multiple jobs or those with children attending school virtually would likely benefit from expanded hours.

"This is great from the equity and access point of view," he told CBC Toronto.

"Sometimes people are doing more than one job to pay their bills," Karim added. "So people are busy during the daytime, especially working people."

Other initiatives to improve vaccine equity should include mobile immunization clinics and even door-to-door vaccinations in some areas, Karim suggested.

City taking other steps to improve access and equity

Toronto has said it plans to replicate some of the practices introduced as part of its COVID-19 testing strategy, which has included the use of pop-up testing sites in areas of the city hardest-hit by the pandemic.

Most recently, the city announced a $5.5-million community mobilization vaccination campaign, in which the city will partner with local non-profit agencies to build vaccine confidence and ensure access to appointments.

The city is also recruiting 280 community ambassadors who will work in hard-hit areas and among communities where other barriers, such as vaccine hesitancy, are expected to complicate immunization efforts.

Frache pointed to other hurdles that she said have not yet been resolved, including migrant or undocumented people who may be fearful of having their immigration status recorded during the vaccination process, and a lack of access to paid sick days so that people can make time for appointments.

"We want to create the conditions where everyone who is able to and desires to be vaccinated is able to do that," she said.