As It Happens·Q&A

Why people in Ontario's hardest-hit neighbourhoods are struggling to get vaccines

As Ontario implements yet another stay-at-home order, the government says it's doing everything it can to speed up vaccine delivery. But new data shows that whether you've got the shot might depend on where you live.

Language barriers, lack of sick leave keep vaccines out of reach, says Toronto community organizer

A team from Humber River Hospital administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the TARIC Centre, Toronto and Region Islamic Congregation, on Apr. 7, 2021 as part of a community outreach program to get seniors vaccinated at their place of worship. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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In Ontario, the people least likely to have received their COVID-19 vaccine are the same people who keep the city running during lockdowns, says a community organizer.

An analysis from ICES — an Ontario research organization that tracks data on a broad range of health-care issues — used postal codes to show people in Ontario's hardest-hit neighbourhoods aren't accessing COVID-19 vaccines at the same rate as those in higher-income areas that have seen far fewer infections.

For example, 22 per cent of residents in Toronto's upscale St. Clair and Rosedale neighbourhood have had at least one dose. But only 5.5 per cent of people have been vaccinated in the Jane and Finch area, where COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates are more than eight times higher. 

The province responded to the data on Tuesday by expanding vaccine eligibility to people 18 and over in the province's COVID-19 hot spots.

Michelle Dagnino, executive director of the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the data. Here's part of their conversation. 

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Michelle, what was it like for you to see this massive gap and who is getting vaccinated in your city of Toronto?

It's so disheartening to see one year after the alarm was first sounded about the differential impact of COVID across the city.

[What are] some of the reasons why people in Jane Finch and those other areas of Toronto and Ontario are not getting vaccinated?

One of the first issues that popped up around the vaccine rollout was how one went around to book an appointment.... It's an online portal. For anyone who has tried to book an appointment in the last four weeks or six weeks, you'll know that it's quite confusing in terms of getting onto the portal, trying to understand what priority group you fall under, trying to find a clinic that has availability close to you.

For the residents of Jane and Finch, what that means is you have to have a device connected to Wi-Fi. You have to have familiarity with English. And you have to be able to have a clinic that is close to you. And for the past month, that has not been the case.

(CBC News)

How difficult was it for people to get to these places? I would imagine a lot of these people don't have their own cars.

The vast majority don't have their own car. So when we are talking about vaccinating seniors — so the first round of vaccines, which were targeted based on age group — we're looking at 80-plus-year-olds who were told to book their vaccine online and then take public transit to get to a vaccine clinic in one of the most heavily transited corridors in the city and in one of the highest hot-spot areas of the city.

So people were literally having to consider the risk of taking transit in order to get a COVID vaccine.

These are residents who keep this city running. They are daycare workers. They are Uber drivers. They are grocery store clerks. But most of them cannot afford to take a day off to go get a vaccine.- Michelle Dagnino, Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre 

A lot of these people go to work. They're not being able to work from home like many people downtown are, or in the centre of the city. These people are going to jobs where they're spending a great deal of time on public transportation to get there. What kind of a barrier does that present?

For many of our working folks in the Jane and Finch area, they're having to take a day off of work — and it's an unpaid day off of work — to get their vaccine.

And for many who are living paycheque to paycheque, missing a day of work — and potentially missing more than one day, because there may be some symptoms that they get from the vaccine that would prevent them from going to work for another day or two — means that they may not have enough money at the end of the month for food or to pay a utility bill.

These are residents who keep this city running. They are daycare workers. They are Uber drivers. They are grocery store clerks. But most of them cannot afford to take a day off to go get a vaccine.

And what has been done in order to try and help? Because this is not a mystery. We know this is the situation for these people.

Agencies such as the Jane/Finch Centre, which has been in the community for the last 40 years and has developed a long-term and long-standing relationship with the community, knows where some of these residents in need are and has been reaching out to residents, and particularly seniors. So we help them book appointments. We help them book transportation to appointments.

And the City of Toronto has recently introduced a program that allows for basically transportation stipends, so whether it be transit or some car-sharing stipends to get to the actual vaccination clinics.

We are also following up with people. One of the concerns that we heard around getting the vaccine was for many people who live alone was that they were afraid that, you know, they may need some assistance or they would have some questions after receiving the vaccine and they didn't have anybody to ask. 

People want to know that there is a support network and a support system in place. That's been one of the ways that we've been able to ensure people are having access to the vaccine.

A woman is seen facing the camera
Michelle Dagnino is the executive director of the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre. (Submitted by Michelle Dagnino)

Now that we're months into this vaccine delivery program, are things getting any better since these problems have been identified?

Yes. In the past few days, we have seen improvements. So we know that there are several mobile vaccination clinics that are getting ready to be launched over the next week or so. They're going to be going to some of the neighbourhoods that we know are at highest risk, particularly those that have a number of residential highrises and towers where a lot of essential workers live.

We have seen the mobile clinics going to seniors' buildings. So not only long-term care homes, but a number of Toronto Community Housing buildings that have mostly senior residents.

And there was an announcement just this afternoon from the province saying that now all adults over the age of 18 are going to be able to be vaccinated in the city's hot spots, and that will most definitely include Jane and Finch.

What do you make of the fact that it's taken this long to solve these problems?

It speaks to 40 years of crises in the community, 40 years of austerity, 40 years of neglect in nearly all investments from infrastructure to social services.

This is not a crisis that emerged March 13, 2020. This is a crisis that has been decades in the making. And what's important for all of us in the city and all of us in this country who care about our fellow residents is to understand that whenever the crisis of COVID is over and we are starting to see a finish line, the structural problems, the structural inequity, the racism, the decades of underinvestment in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood, will still be there. And we will not be any better prepared for the next crisis if we don't start to address that.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Toronto. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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