Community organizations collaborate to get residents vaccinated against COVID-19

A ‘massive undertaking’: How community organizations are collaborating to get East Toronto residents vaccinated against COVID-19

Access Alliance – published in East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP) Newsletter (Aug 2021)

The impact of COVID-19 on some of Toronto’s most vulnerable communities has been well documented.

According to City of Toronto data, as of May 31, 2021, 73 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases identified with a racialized group and live in communities with higher percentages of racialized and newcomer communities, including Taylor-Massey, Oakridge, and Victoria Village. It is also well documented that these three communities have lower-than-average vaccination rates. Collaboration among community organizations and community ambassadors has been critical in flattening the curve and providing access to care for those most at risk of contracting COVID-19.

To help flatten the curve in high-priority areas, the City of Toronto funded the Vaccine Engagement Team Project this past spring. The initiative brings together local not-for-profit organizations to increase vaccine confidence and address barriers that prevent the acceptance and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines.
In East Toronto, this involves a consortium of organizations known as the Vaccine Engagement Team. The consortium is led by Access Alliance and includes TNO — The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), Toronto Community Housing, Working Women Community Centre (WWCC), WoodGreen Community Services, Bangladeshi-Canadian Community Services (BCS), Afghan Women’s Organization (AWO), and The Neighbourhood Group (TNG). Many of these organizations are members of East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP), the Ontario Health Team (OHT) serving East Toronto.

While vaccine hesitancy has often been cited as a major factor that has increased the prevalence of COVID-19 among racialized communities, it is only one variable.

Through the collaboration of the Vaccine Engagement Team and the hard work of community ambassadors, different barriers to vaccination, such as language and culture, precarious employment, child care responsibilities and stigma, have been tackled.

“Over the last year and a half, this situation with COVID-19 has been constantly evolving, with shifting information and priorities for the partner organizations,” explained Rejwan Karim, Manager at AccessPoint on Danforth, a community hub where Access Alliance offers its services. “Access Alliance and the consortium are deeply connected to the community, which provides us with an opportunity to reach thousands of community members with vaccine information and health promotion. With the support of our partner organizations, the City of Toronto and Michael Garron Hospital (MGH), we’ve been able to confidently tackle this massive undertaking.”

The pandemic has been challenging in many ways, forcing community organizations to redeploy team members, rapidly innovate, and stretch their resources to meet the challenge of providing responsive care.

However, as demonstrated through the work of the consortium, there are many advantages to centrally coordinating community organizations to help increase vaccination uptake among local residents.

In collaboration with MGH, other ETHP organizations, and the City of Toronto, the consortium has been able to form an advisory committee and working group that allow the partner organizations to better understand, coordinate and respond to the needs of the communities they serve.

Resources have been shared among partner organizations to effectively host pop-up vaccine clinics and increase vaccine uptake within vulnerable communities. Through the support of the City of Toronto, community members have also been provided with transportation support to local clinics and access to personal protective equipment (PPE).

Most importantly, there are hundreds of stories of local residents who have been able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine through these efforts. For many of these individuals, the vaccine otherwise seemed unattainable. In partnership with community ambassadors, community leaders, schools and faith groups, the consortium has been able to reach community members with a far higher degree of success.

One success story comes out of a clinic that was hosted on July 14, 2021 in the Agnes MacPhail Community. The clinic was lead by Access Alliance in collaboration with TCH, ETHP and MGH. This building is in the Taylor-Massey neighbourhood, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.

TCH staff made phone calls to senior residents in advance informing them of the clinic date. Outreach by the multilingual health ambassador team throughout the day encouraged many residents to get their vaccination. The most valuable was the ability for MGH ETHP staff to answer questions residents had about the vaccine. These factors combined with the accessibility of the clinic led to a successful turnout.

Residents lined up over an hour before the clinic began and by the end of the day, 124 doses were administered, 36 of which were first doses. Seniors were highly appreciative of having such an organized vaccine clinic right at their building.

Efforts like these have helped to steadily flatten the curve among communities in the city with the lowest vaccination rates.

These efforts also demonstrate the impact of effective collaboration and continuous communication. With the right resources, deep community engagement and collaboration with partners like MGH and ETHP, the impact of organizations already working in the community can be expanded to respond to any challenge.