Toronto to accept walk-ins at one mass vax site as city tries to 'close the gap' on COVID-19 vaccinations

People receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination clinic at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Sunday, June 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Toronto is launching a call centre, rolling out a multilingual vaccine campaign and will start taking walk-in appointments at one of its mass vaccination sites in an effort to get shots in arms in parts of the city with lower COVID-19 vaccine uptake.

“As we experience a high number of available appointments, we've made the decision to allow for walk-in appointments at the city's Toronto Congress Centre vaccination clinic,” Mayor John Tory said at a briefing Wednesday.

Starting Thursday, 2,000 walk-in vaccinations a day will be available at the Toronto Congress Centre for those 18 and up. The walk-in shots will be available from noon to 7 p.m.

It is the first time that Toronto will offer walk-in appointments at one of its mass vaccination sites, all of which will continue to take booked appointments as well.

The move comes a day after the city flagged that there were thousands of unbooked appointments at the Dixon Road mass vaccination site. On Tuesday evening, the city said that there were still more than 2,600 next-day appointments available at the Congress Centre. A day earlier, the city had said there were 2,500 next-day appointments available for Tuesday.

Tory said the city is making the move as part of an effort to “close the gap” between residents with just one dose and those with two, particularly in parts of the city with lower vaccine uptake. Health officials have said that two shots are far more protective against the more contagious Delta variant, first identified in India.

“We have to close the gap between the more than 50 per cent who have been fully vaccinated and had two doses, and the high 70s percentage that have had only one dose,” Tory said.

Chief Matthew Pegg said the city will monitor walk-ins at the Toronto Congress Centre and could expand walk-ins to other mass vaccination sites if warranted.

“We'll watch that very closely and evaluate the effectiveness of that and if of course that proves to be successful, which I have every confidence that it will, that may give us an opportunity to expand that into the other clinics,” Pegg said.

Pegg added that the city’s mass vaccination sites are now operating at full capacity based on abundant vaccine supply and that 90 per cent of doses administered at the sites are now second doses.

The city also announced that on Saturday it will launch a “Home Stretch Vaccine Push,” a one-week, hyper-local vaccination initiative targeting several priority neighbourhoods. They include Elms-Old Rexdale, Kingsview Village - The Westway, Mount Dennis, Mount Olive-Silverstone-Jamestown, Weston (Black Creek/Humber), and Englemount-Lawrence.

The clinics will predominantly administer the Pfizer vaccine and will offer flexible afternoon and evening hours to accommodate frontline workers in and near buildings where residents live.

“The aim of the home stretch vaccine push is to encourage uptake across neighbourhoods that currently have the lowest rate of vaccination by breaking down any of the remaining barriers to access,” Tory said.

He pointed out as an example that while 77 per cent of Toronto residents city-wide have had a first shot, just 59 per cent of residents in the northwest part of the city have had a first dose. In that area, just 36 per cent have had a second dose, compared to around 50 per cent city-wide.

The effort will be promoted in multiple languages using call centres, social media, texting and other platforms.

Asked why vaccine uptake might be lower in these areas, Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said there are a number of reasons, including unusual working hours and historical mistrust of health authorities.

“Access is one. We heard from a number of people that you know getting time in the day when you're busy with jobs that are at odd hours, it's not always easy to get to vaccine clinics,” de Villa said. “So certainly having access, having the vaccine clinic available at different hours, close to home, that don't require a lot of travel, that's one thing that is certainly an issue.

“I think that there has also been some historical distrust of healthcare and I think we have to be very honest and candid about that.”

She said the city has been working with community partners to try hit home the message that the vaccines are a protective service that are being offered to the community.

Starting today, the city is also launching a VaxTO call centre to reach out to individuals in areas with lower vaccination rates. The call centres will help people book first and second dose appointments and will have the capacity to reach out to 4,100 people per week in multiple languages.