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DLSPH Faculty Lead Toronto Task Force on Vaccine Inequity

February 3/2021

A DLSPH professor, Akwatu Khenti, will chair a task force of Black scientists to address vaccine hesitancy and other challenges around vaccine equity in Toronto.

City officials announced the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, which includes several DLSPH professors, in a virtual news conference Feb. 3, along with $6.8 million in support for ten Toronto neighbourhoods. Citing disproportionately high levels of COVID infection and vaccine hesitancy among Black Torontonians, Mayor John Tory pledged “we have to do everything possible to provide [communities] with the information they need.”

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out in Ontario, public health officials fear inequities could widen race-based disparities in COVID-related suffering. Black Torontonians of African and Caribbean descent currently experience the highest COVID rates in the city, at 26 percent of total cases, and the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy, at 30 percent, according to Tory.  This means taking a careful, custom approach to building trust with Black communities and other populations historically ill-treated by governments and public health systems, says Khenti.

“The issues faced by the task force are very real and daunting given high rates of positivity testing and hospitalization as well as low levels of vaccine acceptance,” he says. “The task force aims to provide the scientific evidence about both COVID and vaccine-related risks, in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner – recognizing that people have good reasons for their positions — so that individuals can make informed decisions about getting vaccinated.”

To start, the task force is hosting five free, virtual town hall meetings for Black Toronto residents, beginning Feb. 13 from 2 to 5 pm. The meeting will address, among other issues, misinformation about COVID vaccination spread on social media channels.

“Public health works best when vulnerable individuals and communities get their health promotion and prevention messages from persons that they can related to and trust,” says Khenti, a longtime researcher on racism and Black mental health. “This is the first time in the history of African Canadians that such a task force, comprised of Black expertise across the vaccine life cycle from clinical trials to needles in arms, has been constituted to address a public health problem of such grave proportions.”

The task force includes two other DLSPH faculty members: Dr. Upton Allen, a professor in the Institute for Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME), and lead investigator on COVID at Sick Kids Hospital; and Dr. Michael Finkelstein, an adjunct professor in the Division of Clinical Public Health and Associate Medical Officer of Health, Toronto Public Health and Chair of the City’s Immunization Task Force.

It’s part of a wider city-led initiative, called the Black Community COVID Response Plan, to offer wrap-around supports to help Black individuals and families stay well physically, mentally and emotionally through the pandemic.

The $6.8 million pledged by Tory will fund 12 community agencies to provide targeted outreach and supports to the top 10 neighbourhoods with a high percentage of Black Torontonians and highest COVID-19 case rate. These supports include increases in culturally-responsive mental health supports, food access provisions for Black-mandated organizations, mobile and community-based testing, mobile services to support seniors and people with disabilities (such as food delivery or wellness checks); a commitment to continue to advocating for income support and housing security; and coordinate health policies, programs and provisions targeted to Black communities.