Everyday people used a personal touch to bump up COVID vaccinations


WE CAN ALWAYS COUNT ON US. Seven hundred everyday folks proved it in Toronto as “covid ambassadors” and it made a difference you could measure.

There are more than 600 ambassadors, coordinated by the city’s Vaccine Engagement Teams (VETs). The ambassadors are all volunteers with strong ties to the communities they work in.

People helping people

Kashmira Dhamani became an ambassador after an ambassador helped her.

“At the beginning of pandemic, I lost my job and I lost my husband. It was a lockdown. So isolation. I don’t have a family. I went into depression and ended up in the hospital. But lots of communities came forward to help me. And that inspires me to do the same. If I can help one person to change their life, or protect their loved ones, that inspires me, and makes it all worth it,” she says.

The small army of ambassadors have put in 70,000 hours since March 2021 in every neighbourhood in the city. They fanned out in their own neighbourhoods, armed with facts to combat misinformation, doing outreach for neighbourhood vaccine clinics and testing, helping residents navigate booking portals, holding the hands of nervous kids, and basically doing whatever it takes to coax and convince skittish folks to get vaccinated. They engaged with more than 2.3 millionTorontonians in over 40 different languages.

“There are lots of challenges in the vaccination outreach campaign,” says Charles Zhu. “We met with lots of microaggression and skepticism—even from our own families and the friends. People slammed their doors on us. Yelled at us, or even called us names. However, our empathy skills, together with our patience, kindness and love won them over, to join the vaccination lineup.”

A measurable improvement

The 35 neighbourhoods prioritized for intense neighbourhood clinics and community ambassadors saw an average increase of 19 percentage points in first-dose vaccine coverage, (66 to 85 per cent), from June 2021 to April 2022. The increase for all other neighbourhoods was just 13 percentage points.

Now, at a time when the will and funding to fight COVID are drying up, the city is asking the province for about $6 million to continue the program until at least the end of the year, citing a track record of success, and the potential to build on this model to deliver other health-care services in the future — from cancer screenings to checks for high blood pressure.

With about 82 per cent of Toronto residents vaccinated with two doses, it may seem like the heavy lifting is done. But Sophia Ikura, executive director of the Health Commons Solutions Lab, said there’s still a lot of work to do— from third and now fourth doses, to childhood shots, and outreach around antivirals such as Paxlovid. And the ambassador teams will also be needed if, and when, a vaccine is approved for kids under five.

Ongoing potential

Ikura sees huge potential for the wider use of the teams already in place, for things like getting women to Pap smears, or reaching seniors and young people who feel isolated.

Toronto Mayor John Tory announced on May 20 that the City of Toronto will extend the work of its COVID-19 Vaccine Engagement Teams (VETs) and covid ambassadors to December 2022, ensuring continued opportunities to increase vaccine equity and access for all residents.

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