At 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, three full hours before the pop-up vaccination clinic was set to open, a small line of people was already forming at the basketball court at 15 Tobermory Drive at Jane and Finch.
“We’ve been struggling. We didn’t know what to expect,” said Cheryl Prescod, Executive Director of nearby Black Creek Community Health Centre and one of the organizers of the clinic.
The pop-up vaccination site opened just 11 days after data showed that postal codes beginning with M3N, at Jane and Finch, had the lowest vaccination rates in the city, despite consistently having some of the highest rates of COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Shortly after that data became public, people from organizations across Toronto joined with local community groups to try to bring vaccines to the neighbourhood. The efforts brought together health care workers and volunteers from University Health Network, Women’s College Hospital, Humber River Hospital, Michael Garron Hospital, GlobalMedic, and Black Creek CHC. “I’m actually blown away by the number of volunteers, the number of agencies,” said Prescod.
[Disclosure: in addition to editing this publication, Local editors Craig Madho and Tai Huynh have recently become involved in vaccination efforts in Toronto. As part of the UHN OpenLab team, they helped support the clinic at 15 Tobermory—a journalistically compromising, but ethically unimpeachable position.]
By 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, the line snaked down the block, past the DJ booth playing soca hits and Bon Jovi. Over the next two days, through rainstorms and despite waits of up to four hours, the team delivered 3,140 vaccinations to community members.
“There’s been a lot of talk of vaccine hesitancy in the community,” says Prescod. “What we saw was not about hesitancy.” Homebound seniors got the shot inside their apartment building. Single mothers with babies were brought to the front of the queue. Essential workers without enough cellphone minutes to wait on hold on the provincial phone line walked over to get their vaccine. People without health cards were processed without questions.
“The Jane-Finch community always gets a pretty bad rap, especially in the media,” says Prescod. “And these are some positive stories. It’s about people who do want to have the vaccine, but because of issues of lack of access, they might not be able to. And it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of a system that doesn’t work for them.”
At points over the weekend, the line to get vaccinated stretched almost four hours. Local community ambassadors circulated, answering questions, allaying concerns, and keeping spirits up during the wait.
Sokun Seng and Sophy Chhim pose with their vaccine tickets. Organizers had to reuse the tickets, sanitizing each one, after the first 1000 people were vaccinated by Saturday afternoon. “It’s so important, my husband works at a food processing plant,” said Chhim. “I worry about him and he worries about me. He says, ‘If I get it at work, I’ll bring it home to you.’ He got home from work today and said, ‘Please, let’s go, we can’t wait.’ I know I will feel safer after today.”
Nicholas Obasi joined the queue at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, after seeing the long line on Saturday. “It’s so reassuring. The more of us that get the shot the better. I work an essential job with a lot of people around, so yes, I’m scared. I came yesterday and the line was down the street, so I chose to come back today. I woke my kids up at 4:00 a.m. and said, ‘Let’s go, we need to get this done.’”
The mobile vaccination team brought the Moderna vaccine to homebound residents inside 15 Tobermory Drive. Community ambassadors from Black Creek CHC worked to educate and encourage people in their community to get vaccinated, and helped connect vaccination teams with homebound residents. Above, a community ambassador assists a resident back to her apartment after receiving her vaccine.
Ashley Nippalow and Ricardo Thomas wait in the observation area after receiving their first shots of Moderna on Saturday. “I was a bit hesitant to be honest, because I’m close with some people who are anti-vax, but at the end of the day I want to protect myself,” said Nippalow. “I have a 12-year-old at home, so I’m protecting him by getting the shot. I had no idea I was getting this today. I saw a flyer in my building, grabbed my friend and said, ‘Let’s go.’ We came right over from Sheppard and waited for four hours.”
“I’m so happy to see all these people out here,” says Thomas. “There’s so many stereotypes about Jane and Finch, but you can see everyone out here today, all these faces, all different types of people.”
On Sunday, residents in line for the vaccine took shelter from the rain in a parking garage. Residents braved multiple rain showers, cold, and wind for their shot of the Moderna vaccine.
Freddy Salazar waits to be vaccinated, alongside his wife Andrea Viveros and their two children. “I’m extremely happy to receive this vaccine,” said Salazar. “We work in pool construction, which I guess is essential for whoever can afford a pool. It’s OK because we work outside, but still, there is a bit of fear in the day-to-day.”
His wife Andrea Viveros said their entire household was infected in the second wave, including their young children, and though their symptoms were mild she still hasn’t fully recovered her sense of taste. “It’s been almost six months since we got infected so we could get it again and we can’t take that risk,” said Viveros.
The Local’s ongoing vaccination coverage is made possible through the generous support of the Vohra Miller Foundation.