As Toronto aims to get everyone vaccinated, some communities still face hesitancy, barriers

At Carson Lam's family health store in Toronto's Chinatown, customers often drop by in search of the vaccine. He says they have many questions about getting their shot but few answers in a language they can easily understand.

City's new VaxTO campaign to target communities with lower vaccination rates

Carson Lam, left, with his brother Benson and mom Kim at Great China Herbs Centre, their store in Toronto's Chinatown. (Submitted by Carson Lam)

At Carson Lam's family health store in Toronto's Chinatown, customers often drop by in search of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

They have many questions about where and when to get their shot and concerns about its safety, but few answers in a language they can easily understand, said Lam, 23, director of The Great China Herbs Centre. 

"It'd be great if there were pamphlets they were handing out or putting into mailboxes in Chinese about where you get the vaccine and how to get the vaccine. All this information. But I have not seen anything like that," Lam told CBC News.

Even though 65 per cent of Toronto adults have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, as reported by the city Tuesday, people in some communities are still hesitant to get their shot and continue to face barriers.

In the Kensington-Chinatown neighbourhood, for example, less than 54 per cent of people over the age of 18 have been received a shot, according to Toronto Public Health.

Lam says out of necessity he's become a kind of vaccine guide, encouraging customers to get the shot at a clinic and explaining the vaccine science and safety to combat hesitancy. For his mom, Lam booked her appointment and set up her ride to and from the clinic. 

"I feel fortunate that my mom has me, someone who can speak and understand English and guide her on how to get the vaccine," he said. "But I feel like there's so many individuals who don't."

City launches VaxTO

Mayor John Tory announced Wednesday a city VaxTO campaign to target communities with lower vaccination rates. The city will hold telephone town halls and launch a text service to help persuade people to get vaccinated and ensure they get a second dose. 

It will also employ multilingual social media advertising and robocalls in hot-spot neighbourhoods, directing people to book appointments, the mayor said. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacy in Toronto on April 10, 2021. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

"This will be crucial in progressing through the province's road map to reopen, which relies heavily on vaccination levels," said Tory.

VaxTO will run like a grassroots "get-out-the-vote" campaign does during elections, said Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto's Board of Health. The message will be spread across the city by community partners on the ground, going door-to-door to motivate people to get vaccinated.

"This is the campaign of all of our lifetimes," Cressy said. 

Seniors, Indigenous communities face barriers

One of those community partners is Spadina-Fort York Community Care. 

The organization has so far booked 5,000 vaccine appointments for seniors, newcomers, migrant workers and temporary residents, says co-founder Shauna Harris. Volunteers reach these groups by going door-to-door, speaking to them over the phone and by email. 

Early on in the vaccination rollout, Harris said it was clear housebound seniors were being overlooked. 

"Whether it be online or by phone. It's a complicated system," Harris said. "They don't have the the technology or family to help them. So that's where we step in."

Jan Shepard, 74, says she was reluctant to go to a clinic because of mobility issues and concerns about vaccine safety, but a volunteer came by her apartment and signed her up for a shot at home. 

She says she's now looking forward to getting her first shot and reuniting with her friends soon. 

"If you want to function outside and be part of society in the next little while, the vaccines are a must," Shepard said.

Julia Lorenti, 13, gets a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Dr. Gary Bloch, with St. Michael’s Hospital, at a clinic for people with Indigenous ancestry, in Toronto, on May 25, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Indigenous people are also facing barriers, says Sarah Dennis, care coordinator at the Call Auntie Clinic, an organization created to support health and wellbeing of those communities during the pandemic. 

The group created the Tkaronto Indigenous Vaccine Access website and hotline to build trust and streamline the vaccination booking process. Tkaronto is the Mohawk word for Toronto.

"Institutions like health-care institutions, hospitals in particular, are not culturally safe for us to access, so there is hesitancy to do so," said Dennis. 

She says some people who've shown up at their vaccine appointment have been asked to prove they're Indigenous by staff. That's a triggering situation for Indigenous people, Dennis says, linked to disenfranchisement and systemic racism, which creates greater mistrust and hesitancy toward the health-care system. 

"It just goes to show that hospitals and institutions and health-care facilities need to up their game still when it comes to practising culturally self care and also creating a balanced way to to support indigenous peoples and their rights to access health care."