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COVID cold shoulder: MPP questions why Church-Wellesley village was excluded from hotspots

Last Updated May 17, 2021 at 1:09 pm EDT

People hold a giant flag during the Pride parade in Toronto THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

While projections have played a large part in how politicians and health officials have tackled COVID-19, Toronto Centre NDP MPP Suze Morrison believes looking back is equally important. Morrison says downtown Toronto’s M4Y postal code, which encompasses the Church-Wellesley village, should have been included in the province’s 114 hotspot designations in part because of “historical harms” dating back to the AIDS crisis in the 80s.

“I think it’s particularly concerning when you also take into account the history of how queer and trans communities were completely abandoned by all levels of government during the last pandemic that this community went through, which was the AIDS crisis,” she told CityNews. “So, what kind of signal is this government sending to queer and trans folks in our community, that once again this government is not going to support you through a pandemic that is going to cost you the lives of community members.”

“You have to take these equity issues, these historical harms, into account. It’s not as clear cut as infection rates …”

At Queen’s Park, Morrison has also argued that M4Y had higher infection rates than some PC ridings which were given hotspot designations.

At the request of NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk announced last month that her office has “identified Ontario’s COVID-19 Immunization Strategy and Implementation as an audit candidate for the 2021-22 audit cycle.”

“As part of this work, we will be reviewing data used in determining the strategy used for the distribution of vaccines,” Lysyk’s said in a letter, which was released by the NDP.

L – A Horwath Re COVID-19 Vaccines by CityNewsToronto on Scribd

During a heated exchange in legislature last month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford accused the NDP of “politicizing the vaccine rollout” while maintaining that the province followed the advice of its experts, including the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, in making its determinations.

In a statement to CityNews, the Ministry of Health added: “Hotspots were identified based on Public Health Ontario data and criteria including hospitalizations, outbreak data, low testing rates and deaths during the second wave of the pandemic. This work applied an anti-racism lens to ensure Ontario protects vulnerable communities. Regions in the highest 20 per cent were identified as hotspot communities. Regions in the top 30 per cent that faced additional barriers, including sociodemographic ones, were also included.

“While the Ministry of Health is providing additional resources to the provincial designated hotspots, there is nothing stopping public health units from designating their own hotspots and providing additional vaccines from within their allocation.”

Robert Steiner, communications director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, told CityNews it “didn’t designate specific postal codes for vaccine distribution.”

“That’s not our job at the science table,” he added. “We did a model to study what might happen if the province allocated a higher proportion of vaccines to the postal codes that, at the time, in January, had accounted for the bulk of COVID spread since the beginning of the pandemic. This was not a list of neighbourhoods we asked the province to prioritize – that’s way beyond our mandate, or our knowledge.”

Last week the province began shifting its focus away from hotspots, opening provincial vaccine registration to all residents 40 and over. On Monday it announced that starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, anyone aged 18 and over will be able to book their vaccine appointment through the province’s online booking portal.

The province is also changing how it distributes vaccines. Going forward it will send shots to regions on a per-capita basis after prioritizing half of the vaccine supply to hotspots over the last two weeks.

‘Confusing and chaotic’

Morrison also called M4Y a “incredibly vulnerable neighbourhood” due to population density and the “high portion of low-income front-line service workers.”

Unity Health Toronto agreed. The network — made up of Providence Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital — designated M4Y a high-risk area, opening a handful of vaccination clinics to its residents.

In a statement, Unity Health Toronto said it deemed M4Y “a high-risk area, given the number of shelters and community housing in this neighbourhood.”

The disconnect between the province and the local health network led to confusion among residents.

“The M4Y postal code has been one of the most confusing and chaotic pieces we’ve had to sort through in this rollout,” Morrison stressed.

“M4Y was not designated by the province as a hotspot, but as soon as that hotspot list went out our local partners at Unity Health looked at the list and immediately realized what a glaring oversight that was.”

“The fact that we have local organizations with a different list than the provincial lists, at some point those lists need to unified … it’s needlessly confusing.”

Toronto Centre Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam also took issue with the province’s handling of hotspots, citing a lack of communication.

“When the province announced their plan to open eligibility up for residents in hotspots between 18-49, they did so before communicating with the city, and without increasing the allocation of vaccines being made available,” she told CityNews. “This significantly increased resident anxiety about their risk, without providing them adequate access to vaccines, and I believe it was very irresponsible.

“I am very frustrated that the Province didn’t work more closely with Toronto Public Health in designating those hotspots. Toronto Public Health has their own assessment criteria of where the most urgent response was needed, and I am confident that better coordination would have saved many of us weeks of unnecessary stress and anxiety.”

“I know that the discrepancy has caused some confusion for residents so I have asked the province, through our MPP Suze Morrison to have M4Y included in the list of hotspots to help alleviate that confusion.”

And while the opening up of provincial vaccine registration to all residents over 18 will alleviate the hotspot conundrum, Morrison still feels the Church-Wellesley village was unfairly given the COVID-19 cold shoulder.

“I think the message that I’ve heard from a lot of folks is they feel left behind by this government,” she said. “They feel left behind and underserved and discriminated by the police with the missing and murdered report. At what point is the community going to be properly supported by the institutions and levels of government that are supposed to have our backs?”

“If you look at the map of the hotspots it’s like they intentionally drew a circle around the Village to exclude it.”

With files from The Canadian Press