Thorncliffe Park, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 in Toronto, has not detected a single case in the last three weeks.
It’s an exciting sign that a year and a half of community outreach to encourage residents to follow public health measures and get vaccinated is paying off, said Ahmed Hussein, CEO of The Neighbourhood Organization in Thorncliffe.
“We are very, very, very excited that we are moving in that direction,” he said. “But we have to continue until we reach our target, which is everybody gets vaccinated who is eligible.”
Thorncliffe Park, located in central east Toronto, is among 31 communities reporting zero COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, according to city data covering about 140 neighbourhoods.
“It’s such an amazing thing to see cases get to zero in certain neighbourhoods where it was daunting for so long,” said Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network.
“I hope we can build on these learned lessons as opposed to some semblance of premature victory that we’ve seen in other jurisdictions that comes with real costs.”
These pockets of success are likely linked to vaccination rates, if people can work from home, if their workplaces are safe, if they can easily access vaccine clinics, as well as their housing situation and income level, said Boozary.
Over the course of the pandemic,Thorncliffe Park logged 9,617 cases per 100,000 people. Experts say it was hard hit because 45 per cent of its residents are considered low-income, and many are essential workers who live in rental apartment buildings. In comparison, the wealthier Leaside neighbourhood, which borders on Thorncliffe Park, had an overall rate of 2,537 cases per 100,000 people.
The Thorncliffe Park community group sent out ambassadors to more than 60 apartment buildings, zeroing in on getting essential workers vaccinated to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at their workplaces and to family members, Hussein said.
He said it was a success in helping close the immunization gap.
“The uptake of vaccine for that group is significantly high, way higher than any other group,” he said.
Now, 54 per cent of adults in Thorncliffe are fully vaccinated, but that’s still lagging behind the city-wide uptake of 65.6 per cent. Vaccination efforts continue, as do initiatives to make sure people are aware of new, more contagious variants, said Hussein.
Nearby neighbourhoods reporting cases
East of Thorncliffe is Flemingdon Park, which has similar demographics and vaccination rates, but has reported 41 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in the last three weeks. It’s a pattern across the city — some neighbourhoods reporting zero cases, others nearby experiencing small outbreaks.
Etobicoke’s Stonegate-Queensway, for example, is at zero while surrounding neighbourhoods report some of the highest case rates in the city, including Alderwood, which saw 50 cases per 100,000 people in the last three weeks.
“I think there might be an element of randomness to it,” said Dr. Jeff Kwong, a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluation Sciences (ICES).
“Sometimes, you get one or two cases and those people infect their household and suddenly it looks like you’ve got a whole bunch of cases.”
But the highly contagiousness delta variant is also in play, he said.
“And so it only takes one person to infect a bunch of people if they’re not vaccinated,” Kwong said. “That’s why it’s really important to get as many people vaccinated as possible — so that we can reduce the chance of having these pockets of unvaccinated people spreading the infection.”
Mass vaccination clinic planned for North York
Some neighbourhoods in North York are also experiencing lower vaccination uptake compared to the rest of Toronto. That’s why North York General Hospital and the city are planning a mass “#VaxTheNorth” pop-up clinic at Mel Lastman Square this weekend.
Sean Malloy, the hospital’s vaccine operations lead, said in the five postal codes served by the hospital surrounding Yonge Street north of Highway 401, there are tens of thousands of people who still aren’t fully vaccinated.
“To make a dent in those [neighbourhoods], we need to think bigger and think about a clinic that could engage a lot of the community at once,” Malloy said.
“And while we’re doing it, have some fun, bring the community together, and really try and address those groups that are either slower to get a vaccine or may be hesitant.”