Volunteers masked up outside Flemingdon Health Centre on Saturday to hand out free healthy snack kits, along with masks and hand sanitizer, for hundreds of the neighbourhood's children.
Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19.
Tens of thousands of people live close together in the community in high-rise buildings. Many of the residents are racialized, living off low incomes and working essential jobs — all of which puts them at increased risk for catching and spreading the virus.
The kits are a gesture of support for struggling parents, and the reaction has been "amazing," said Masood Alam, president of the Canadian Community Services Organization, a volunteer effort which launched back in April in response to the pandemic and only recently incorporated into a non-profit.
"We started with 50 families," Alam said. "Now, they're helping us out… volunteering with us."
To date, he said the group has distributed 2,500 adult masks and 900 kid masks. Moving forward, the Kids Healthy Snacks Drive will provide 300 children weekly with healthy snacks and personal protective equipment, including more masks for their parents.
It's a small but meaningful volunteer initiative, and Saturday's efforts were bolstered by the latest report from Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
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The provincial group released a report Friday recommending vaccines be distributed based not just on age but neighbourhoods too.
The recommendation stems from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 "on residents of disadvantaged and racialized urban neighbourhoods throughout the province," said the report.
"This vaccine strategy will maximize the prevention of deaths … and best maintain health-care system capacity."
Per expert projections, a strategy involving age and neighbourhoods could prevent an additional 3,767 cases, as well as 168 deaths, compared with a strategy that prioritizes based on age alone.
"There's a big need in this community," said Alam, who added that the group is also trying to spread awareness about the vaccine "to help the community be ready to get [vaccinated]."
Ahmed Hussein, executive director of The Neighbourhood Association, is one of the community advocates who's been pushing for the prioritization of vulnerable communities like Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park.
"The science advisory group really followed the science so that's the logical thing," he said. "We hope the government will do that."
A neighbourhood approach makes sense as part of a public health approach, said Jen Quinlan, the chief executive officer at Flemingdon Health Centre.
"You want to make sure you can vaccinate and address the pandemic in the quickest way, and in my opinion it only makes sense to start with those who are most vulnerable to negative health outcomes," Quinlan said.
She said she understands that conversations around vaccine access are "very sensitive" and that many people are concerned and worried the rollout isn't fast enough.
However, Quinlan said, the stakes are different for Torontonians who are able to work from home safely and haven't seen a big drop in income throughout the pandemic.
"Many Torontonians are not in that position," she said. "They're delivering your food, they're stocking your grocery aisles, they're packing all of your Amazon orders, and if we want to address the spread of COVID-19 across Toronto we should start with those who are most likely to spread it and who are most exposed."
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Until neighbourhood residents start getting injected with the vaccine, Quinlan said a key part of the Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park approach is encouraging more people to get tested.
They're even using decommissioned TTC buses to set up testing facilities in the parking lots at the base of high-rise apartment buildings, she said.
Despite the fatigue after a long winter under stay-at-home orders, Quinlan said she's "really proud of community leaders" and intends to "keep public health messaging alive and well."