City officials will wage an election-style campaign to close the gap on first dose vaccinations, officials announced Wednesday.
With provincial data showing strong protection against COVID-19 for fully vaccinated citizens, Toronto will operate phone banks and run a ground game — putting pop-up, multi-day clinics in the common rooms and parking lots of buildings with low vaccination rates, starting in the city’s northwest.
“In many ways this home stretch vaccine push — well, it’s similar to the polio campaigns of the 1950s. Those campaigns went building-by-building to get people vaccinated,” said Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto’s board of health. He earlier told the Star that access, not hesitancy, is causing a slowdown in first doses.
More than 77 per cent of Torontonians have received a first dose of vaccine as of Monday, according to city data, while about 52 per cent are fully vaccinated. In the northwest neighbourhoods to be targeted by the city, first dose uptake for adults was closer to 60 per cent and second doses lagged as low as 35.6 per cent in one neighbourhood.
“This approach is also similar to an election — something that I’ve been a part of,” said Cressy. “Only in this case, instead of multiple polling stations we have multiple clinics. And instead of door knocking and phone banking to ask for your vote, we’re canvassing and calling residents to answer their questions and to help them access a clinic.”
A call centre launched Wednesday to connect with as many as 4,100 residents per week to help them book appointments.
And a team led by the city, Michael Garron Hospital and the University Health Network will operate more than a dozen pop-up clinics in six priority neighbourhoods: Elms-Old Rexdale, Kingsview Village-The Westway, Mount Dennis, Mount Olive-Silverstone-Jamestown, Weston-Black Creek-Humber and Englemount-Lawrence. The clinic locations were selected using neighbourhood specific data about vaccination rates and will be open multiple days at specific hours to help people access them before and after work or when their kids are in child care.
Robocalls, targeted, multilingual advertisements, a translated public health website and local ambassadors going door-to-door will also be part of the strategy.
And the city’s vaccination mega clinic at the Toronto Congress Centre in Rexdale will start taking up to 2,500 walk-in appointments daily as of Thursday.
Officials stressed they don’t believe the city has hit a wall of hesitancy.
Cressy pointed out there are still 205,000 appointments booked for first and second doses at city-run clinics that have yet to be administered.
Speaking to those holding out for a matching dose, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, disclosed Wednesday she herself received mixed mRNA doses — getting Pfizer for her first dose and Moderna over the weekend.
“I was not a Pfizer holdout,” de Villa said. “I felt quite comfortable taking Moderna as a second dose.”
She said that’s in keeping with the available science that mRNA vaccines are “very effective” against the virus and national guidance that Pfizer and Moderna are “effectively interchangeable.”
“I recognize that there are people who are interested in receiving a particular kind of vaccine,” she said. “The science suggests that what you need to do is get full protection and I would encourage people still to get that vaccine dose as soon as they can.”
Cressy, in an earlier interview, said the biggest barrier to increasing vaccinations is a lack of accessible resources and clinics — something he said the city is working diligently to address.
“The biggest issue we’ve identified in Toronto is access — to information, to trusted people who can answer your questions and to clinics, especially if you’re working two jobs and it’s hard to take time off,” he said. “We found that access is the biggest driver in places where there are slower (vaccination rates).”
The election campaign-style approach isn’t new. Cressy said the city started building the infrastructure that allows for this grassroots approach months ago in anticipation of stagnating numbers. From this point on, hyperlocal vaccination campaigns will only scale up, Cressy said.
He said this approach is highly effective. On voice calls, a message prompts listeners to press a button to be connected to the provincial vaccine booking line if they have yet to be vaccinated. Cressy said more than 10,000 people booked their first dose appointment recently through that mechanism.
In the past two weeks the city has also started hosting localized telephone town halls. City councillors, alongside local community leaders and Toronto Public Health representatives, speak with a few thousand community members at a time in targeted hot spots.
Much of the time, Cressy said, the community members on the line at these town halls have yet to get their first doses, and these sessions go a long way toward helping get them shots.