COVID-19 vaccine rollout improving in hardest-hit areas but inequities remain, research shows

·4 min read
People are administered the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccine clinic in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood, in the M3N postal code, on April 17, 2021. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)
People are administered the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccine clinic in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood, in the M3N postal code, on April 17, 2021. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The disparity between COVID-19 vaccination rates in some of Toronto's hardest hit, lower-income neighbourhoods and the city's more affluent areas is starting to narrow, new data suggests.

But even as the situation improves with hot-spot areas prioritized by the province in recent weeks, many areas enduring high transmission of the virus still have much lower vaccination rates than wealthier neighbourhoods.

"The difference between the high-risk areas and the low-risk areas is levelling off," said Jeff Kwong, senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), an independent, non-profit corporation that conducts health research in Ontario.

"It's getting to be more similar — but I think the highest risk areas are still lagging a bit."

The latest ICES analysis of postal code and vaccination data does show improvements. This comes after the province said it would prioritize vaccines in hot-spot areas, with health units now offering pop-up vaccination clinics in those neighbourhoods.

The M3N postal code in the Jane and Finch area, for example, had just 7.2 per cent of people vaccinated with at least one dose as of April 4. By April 18, that number had jumped to 20.44 — an increase of 183 per cent.

That area has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the region, with 8.12 cases per 100 people, according to the ICES data.

The situation has similarly improved in Thorncliffe Park, in the M4H postal code. On April 4, that area was reporting 12.4 per cent of people having received at least one dose. That number had just about doubled as of April 18, and now stands at 24.74 per cent.

Lines grow at pop-up clinics

Jen Quinlan is the CEO of the Flemingdon Health Centre, and has been part of organizing vaccine pop-ups in the area.

She told CBC News that over 4,100 vaccines were distributed from April 6 to April 12, and the demand has demonstrated the area does not have high rates of vaccine hesitancy.

"Folks in Thorncliffe and Flemingdon have really experienced the brunt of the pandemic — as essential workers, as folks who live in intergenerational households — it's been a very challenging time to be able to stay healthy and stay well," she said.

WATCH | CBC's Angelina King looks at the data behind vaccine inequalities in Toronto:

"So you can see the extreme motivation that folks have to be able to take care of themselves, their neighbours, [and] their family members."

But pop-clinics still need more vaccines, she said, and when mass vaccination sites aren't able to stay open due to low supply, the pop-up clinics become "a little bit more competitive, and folks are quite anxious and line up really early.

"We don't feel that's very client-centred," she said.

"Our goal is for these pop-ups to be accessible, to be easy … but unless the whole system is working well and there's plenty of supply across these different ways of accessing the vaccine, the pop-ups become sort of a catch-all, and therefore we definitely have to turn folks away."

Views of long lines at pop-up sites in and around Toronto have become common on social media:

Hot spots will continue to improve, scientist believes

Though rates in some areas of the city are improving, gaps remain.

In the M8K postal code, for example, 39.68 per cent of people have been vaccinated with at least one dose, with 1.71 COVID-19 cases per 100 people. Similar rates exist in the Forest Hill South postal code M5P, with 35.73 people vaccinated, and 1.59 cases per 199 people.

Compare that to the M9M postal code in North York, which has 8.08 cases per 100 people, but a considerably lower vaccination rate at 18.84 per cent. It's a similar story in the M9V postal code, with 7.58 COVID-19 cases per 100 people, but only 17.18 per cent of people having received at least one dose of vaccine.

Kwong told CBC News that now that the province has said it will prioritize areas with the most troubling numbers, the main issue is vaccine supply. The province has been clamouring for more vaccines from the federal government.

"I think we really need to prioritize the hot spots, because if we can get those hot spots under control … things will settle down a lot," Kwong said.

"I think with our increased focus on the hot spots, it's going to happen in the next few weeks."