Toronto’s Black community has ‘hit a wall’ in getting vaccinated

Dr Vinita Dubey

While Ontario refocuses its efforts on what the provincial government calls the “last mile” of its vaccination strategy, a group of prominent Black organizations is warning the push to immunize Black communities is nowhere near the finish line.

Toronto’s Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity says it worries Black residents may have “hit a wall” in getting vaccinated, because in some neighbourhoods with the highest Black populations, less than half of adults are fully immunized.

According to Dr. David Burt, a task force member and immunologist, Black residents make up about nine percent of the Greater Toronto Area’s population, but they make up 20 to 30 per cent of the population in under-vaccinated postal codes, and are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 than their white peers, especially to the much more transmissible delta variant.

“Although a high percentage of people in the Black community has had a first dose, we know that one dose will not give you strong enough protection against this variant,” Burt stated.

He said the lack of vaccinations is a “worrying trend” that could result in a higher proportion of Black patients hospitalized or seriously ill after contracting COVID-19. This also happened in August 2020, he said, when the Black community accounted for 30 per cent of the city’s COVID cases.

Dr Akwatu Khenti

As a result, the task force held 25 town hall sessions throughout the year to educate community members on vaccines, which had “effectively reduced hesitancy and mistrust” around them.

However, the group says, attendance at the meetings has dropped significantly in recent weeks at both town halls and mobile clinics.

“It’s important that the community gets vaccinated fully now that the variants are here, otherwise we’re going to see an increase of severe disease, hospitalizations and, unfortunately, death,” Burt said.

Burt said the Black community is more hesitant about the vaccine for several reasons, including mistrust of medical professionals, misinformation being shared on social media and questions over the efficacy of the vaccines themselves.

Eight other front-line Black community organizations support the task force’s findings.

Task force chair Dr. Akwatu Khenti echoed Burt’s concerns, saying “right now we are positioned to go back where we were last August.”

“We have vaccinated everyone who wants to get a vaccine and now we are dealing with the truly vaccine hesitant as well as the vaccine resistant,” Khenti said.

“These are the people who don’t go to town halls and don’t read newspapers every single day. Many of them have two and three jobs and their lives are really preoccupied with work and paying the bills because they earn so little that that’s their main priority,” he added.

The only solution, Khenti said, is to “intensify” a grass-roots approach that involves pop-up clinics and community members visiting people at home.

Toronto’s Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vinita Dubey said the city had been working closely with community partners to understand why people are “hesitant or unable to get vaccinated”, and said staff had found access to vaccines had been identified as a barrier.

Mobile clinics and outreach initiatives have increased in recent weeks across the city to divert resources to strategies that focus on communities where fewer people have gotten the shots.

Woodgreen Community Services, for example, has held pop-up vaccine clinics and has been running door-knocking campaigns to get doses into arms in communities that have trouble accessing their first or second shots.

Nadjib Alamyar, Woodgreen’s manager for newcomer wellness, says his team, which focuses on the Taylor-Massey neighbourhood, located north of Danforth Avenue between Main Street and Victoria Park Avenue, has seen “really positive results” from the initiative.

The organization recruits local ambassadors, which include neighbours and individuals who live in the same building, to start the conversation with other residents.

He said 20 to 30 per cent of those visiting vaccine clinics were now doing so for their first dose, a sign that the community outreach was getting through to people.