As Toronto continues its push to get people their first COVID-19 vaccine dose, a partner agency running a pop-up clinic was subjected to hostility and verbal abuse by people attempting to get a second dose even though they didn’t qualify for a shot.
The Cecil Community Centre scrambled to get a vaccination clinic up and running in weeks for people living, working, and servicing the M5T postal code, which includes Chinatown and Kensington Market.
With only 1,200 doses available for two days, the clinic was well into its second day when volunteers said they began noticing people gathering in its courtyard. The community centre’s executive director, Danny Anckle, said it soon became clear some people gathering were looking for a second dose.
Toronto’s vaccine equity strategy has leaned heavily on partner agencies based in the community to both build trust and combat vaccine hesitancy while reaching people who may have face barriers in getting a dose for language or other issues.
“These people definitely fall through the cracks … Language is a huge issue first of all, so you have to make sure that you present material in their language, but when they arrive that we can service them in their languages as well,” Anckle said.
Were it not for those outreach programs, he said people would have missed their opportunity to get a shot.
Despite clearly outlining who qualified for a dose and that only people 70 years old and older, as well as those with disabilities qualified for a second dose, Anckle said many the crowd began growing. Some were told to come back after 6 p.m. that evening for the possibility of leftover doses, but he said they were given no guarantees.
Eventually the community centre asked the second-dose seekers were asked to leave the property. Anckle said the crowd grew to about 250 people and stretched down the street, around the block.
As volunteers began overhearing people talk about plans to go to cottages, Anckle said it was very apparent they weren’t from the neighbourhood.
“Yesterday it was full of high-end SUVs, Lexus, and Mercedes Benz … they were coming from Avenue Road and St. Clair, they were coming from Thornhill and they were texting each other and high-fiving each other, saying ‘Oh you made it.’”
Most of the crowd eventually thinned out, but the core group of about 30 people remained across the road staring down those who actually qualified for the shot.
“It just shows that these people didn’t come in the first place,” Anckle said, referring to the people volunteers and the local BIA had spent weeks trying to encourage to come get a shot
“They felt they didn’t deserve it.”
While the situation was ongoing, volunteers at the clinic documented on social media who they were helping get their first dose. Some of them included seniors who didn’t speak English, students without the correct identification, and Chinatown workers.
Anckle said as the clinic was about the close, there were 13 doses remaining. Rather than let them expire, the clinic selected 13 people for a second dose. As they came into the community centre, volunteers arrived with three restaurant workers after canvassing the neighbourhood.
The clinic approached the last three people in line and Anckle said they were asked to give up their second dose so others could have their first.
“They said ‘No,’” he recalled, adding those people turned their backs on clinic staff.
It was at that point when the clinic made the decision to deny three second doses in favour of the restaurant workers.
“So they stomped and they screamed,” Anckle said, saying people were shouting in the face of volunteers.
Read more: Before rolling out vaccines to Black Canadian communities, advocates call on governments to rebuild trust
The intrusive behaviour of those seeking a second dose also didn’t help the clinic’s efforts, the ward’s city councillor Mike Layton said
“They were trying to create an atmosphere to bring those people in that are having trouble accessing their first dose and I think a bit of that atmosphere and that safety people were feeling was taken away by individuals coming to get a second dose and sticking around when they were told they weren’t going to get it.”
Layton called the incident “disappointing” and undermines the hard work of the city’s vaccination efforts. He said Chinatown and Kensington Market were falling below the vaccine threshold, but that has turned around thanks to the efforts of partner agencies.
“We need these clinics, these vaccine pop-ups, to do their serve their intended purpose,” Layton said.
“We are doing a disservice to all of our community if all of a sudden we’re not trying to meet these people where they’re at.”