‘I’m feeling very fortunate’: Downsview Arena vaccine clinic speeds up rollout to high-risk neighbourhoods

·6 min read

Shortly after noon on Easter Sunday, 51-year-old Toronto kindergarten teacher Sara Kussner sat quietly inside a bustling arena in North York, waiting to receive her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

The moment came after a nerve-racking year, though Kussner counts herself lucky. Her school had only a handful of known infections, she said. But the part of the city where she lives has been a different story. It sits just inside a COVID-19 “hot spot” in Toronto’s northwest corner.

That zone includes neighbourhoods like Downsview-Roding-CFB, which had a staggering infection rate of 1,081 cases for every 100,000 residents in March, while Toronto’s least affected neighbourhood had a rate of just 54 per 100,000. Nearby Humbermede was in similarly bad shape.

So, taking advantage of extra doses the province made available for areas with high infection rates, the clinic at Downsview Arena — which opened Wednesday — lowered its age threshold. It invited anyone 50 or older who lived in a swath of northwest Toronto, regardless of their job or existing health conditions, to go and get their jabs.

“I’m feeling very fortunate that I’m able to be here,” Kussner reflected on Sunday. “I’m very, very relieved, and almost guilty that not every teacher has the opportunity that I have today.”

The clinic is run by Humber River Hospital, and aims to fill a void in vaccine access, said Ruben Rodriguez, who manages vaccine outreach for the hospital. “If you look, for example, at the pharmacies that have opened (to offer AstraZeneca shots) across the city, in this particular neighbourhood, there’s not a lot of that,” he said.

Across Ontario, recent data has shown that people living in high-risk neighbourhoods aren’t being vaccinated at the same rates as those living in areas with the lowest infection rates.

Some 1,070 people were booked to get their shots on Sunday, among them teachers and construction workers, people working in blood clinics and medical imaging labs, and those in the older age ranges who qualify for vaccines across the city. As people shuffled in for their time slots, they registered at a front desk, then were shown to one of several “pods” with 20 chairs apiece.

As opposed to what one doctor described as an “assembly line” model, where patients move from a registration area to a check-in desk to a vaccine zone and an observation area, visitors on Sunday stayed in a single seat. Staff made their way up and down rows to take their information, deliver the injections and monitor them after their shots.

“Like a flight attendant,” Rodriguez quipped.

To many, the speed of the process was welcome. “They’re doing a fantastic job,” Pietro Della Libra, a local resident, said after receiving his shot. The last year had been scary, he said, as someone living with diabetes — which ups the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

While he praised the clinic’s staff, he was frustrated by the speed of the overall vaccine rollout, and the months-long wait until he, his wife and his elderly mother would get their second doses.

Avelina Collado, who works in medical imaging, also got her injection and described the process as easy and comfortable. Mukesh Gandi lauded the clinic’s flexibility in arranging an appointment for his 55-year-old brother, Paresh, who has a development disability. Paresh missed his time slot Saturday, Gandi said, but the clinic squeezed him in on Sunday instead.

There were still some hiccups. Vladimir Turovsky, 67, had initially been booked for a shot on Saturday, his wife, Zhana, told the Star. But when he arrived, he was told that a vaccination wouldn’t be available that day, and was asked whether he could return the next day when Zhana had her appointment. (Both expressed gratitude, nonetheless, to have more protection.)

Some chairs sat empty. The clinic hasn’t yet scaled up to its full capacity of around 2,700 jabs a day, as Rodriguez said staffing was still being finalized and that going full-tilt immediately could lead to chaos. “We wanted to see how the flow from the parking lot into the building and out of the building worked before we started getting more people here,” he said. Their aim was to jump to 1,400 appointments a day by Tuesday, and scale up from there.

While five per cent of people booked for Saturday hadn’t shown up, Rodriguez said that figure was better than when they were running a clinic out of the hospital. And a team of mobile staff were going out to vaccinate people who didn’t have the ability to book appointments online, with the hopes of covering off more nearby neighbourhoods.

Local family doctor Vered Kakzanov, who was administering vaccines, said it’s been hard on her to see what’s happened with cases in the northwest. “A lot of my patients have 10, 12 people in a household with a two-bedroom apartment, so isolating from the rest of the family hasn’t been realistic. They don’t have the setup for that,” she said. “This initiative, I just feel like it’s the only thing that can help at this stage, because I can’t change the other factors.”

Prioritizing vaccines not only based on age, but also on where people live, has been identified by Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table as a way to save more lives and prevent more severe cases.

In a brief in February, the science table noted the pandemic had disproportionately affected neighbourhoods with higher concentrations of essential workers, crowded and multi-generational housing, visible minorities and low-income residents. By adjusting vaccine strategies to inoculate based on age and location, modelling projected that 3,767 cases, 702 hospitalizations, 145 ICU stays and 168 deaths could be prevented by May, the Star’s Jennifer Yang reported.

Ontario last month allocated extra vaccine doses to 13 health units for use in hot-spot areas.

Carol Poppe, a retired operating nurse working at the clinic on Sunday, saw first-hand how the northwest was thrashed by infections while working in a nearby COVID-19 assessment centre.

“It was a lot of factories, a lot of people working … the people that are not getting paid sick time,” Poppe said. “It’s just people that need to make money. Some of them have two or three jobs. They work hard, and they can’t let their families down.”

Having entire households vaccinated was the ideal situation, Poppe said, and lowering the age threshold for residents of the northwest moves them closer to reaching that goal. “I just want everyone vaccinated, so we can move on and get out of here — get out of this pandemic.”

For more information on eligibility and where to get vaccinated in Toronto, visit the city’s vaccine website.

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star