Opinion: Toronto is increasing vaccinations, thanks to community ambassadors

Suganthine Sundaralingam is a neighbourhood ambassador in Scarborough. Photo by Jennifer Su
Suganthine Sundaralingam is a neighbourhood ambassador in Scarborough. Photo by Jennifer Su

Unique program focuses on hard-hit regions of the city.

When Suganthine Sundaralingam knocks on doors in her community in Toronto, she carries two folders with her: one with flyers in English listing the nearest vaccination pop-up clinic at the Dorset Park Community Hub; the other carrying the same flyers in Arabic, Cantonese, Spanish, Tamil, Urdu, Farsi, and Tagalog.

As a neighborhood ambassador for the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities, Sundaralingam is able to sign people up without inputting certain information, enabling undocumented people and migrant workers to access the vaccine.

She has kept a spreadsheet of the 100 people she’s registered for vaccine appointments since the start of May – relatives and members of the language circle she hosts in her building, families of her son’s schoolmates, visitors to the garden where she volunteers, and residents of her building, where she’s part of the neighborhood association.

Brannavy Jeyasundaram

Credit: contributed

Brannavy Jeyasundaram
Brannavy Jeyasundaram

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Sundaralingam moved to the Toronto Community Housing Corporation building she now lives in 13 years ago, after separating from her husband, and she has been advocating for her community ever since. After learning that the nearest English class for newcomers was two bus rides away, she helped form the Women’s English Circle, an informal group to learn English and nurture social relationships between immigrant women.

Sundaralingam’s ties to her community run deep.

The neighborhood ambassador program is designed to identify people like Sundaralingam to conduct vaccine outreach. It is a function of the City of Toronto’s Vaccine Engagement Teams Grant which focuses on 140 neighborhoods, with an emphasis on hard-hit regions.

Lead organizations, such as the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities, form partnerships with community agencies and, more specifically, resident-led grassroots groups to hire and train ambassadors.

The main criteria for ambassadors is sharing the lived experience of community members made most vulnerable through the pandemic. At least $5.5 million has been awarded across the 140 neighborhoods.

Throughout the vaccine rollout, these ambassadors have played an outsized role behind the scenes.

They’ve connected with the elderly, the homeless and other groups who could not refresh their browsers at the precise second a vaccine appointment became available. Their on-the-ground efforts have carved a pathway to the vaccine that had largely been overlooked by the government until recently.

‘Long time to figure out’

The need for community ambassadors was evident long before the vaccine rollout began.

At the beginning of last October, when COVID testing sites at downtown Toronto hospitals saw long lines that circled street corners, testing rates among the worst-affected neighborhoods were far below the rest of the city.

In response, the province allocated $12.5 million dollars in funding for neighborhood ambassadors to increase testing in 15 high-priority communities.

Drawing on the local knowledge of ambassadors and the community agencies that employed them, a number of pop-up testing sites were established in pockets of the city underserved by previous efforts.

“It took the system a really long time to figure out that, actually, the lack of testing in the highest-transmission communities was an economic situation,” said Sophia Ikura, executive director of the Health Commons Solutions Lab.

“But the community ambassadors knew right away.”

In April, the Rexdale Community Health Centre became one of the first lead organizations to receive funding from the city, though the group began its outreach well before.

Yet, it was only this month that it noticed a marked difference in the people visiting their pop-up clinics.

“The challenging part is managing the hours,” said Terrence Rodriguez, COVID engagement team coordinator at the Rexdale Community Health Centre. “The ambassadors also help with the vaccine clinics, line management, they’re undergoing training — that eats up time.”

‘An excellent case study’

In the meantime, community ambassadors continue to serve as an integral conduit between shifting systems.

When Sundaralingam registered her 86-year-old non-English-speaking relative for the vaccine, she consulted Toronto Ride to arrange transportation.

Ikura believes the success of the neighborhood ambassador program is due to the quality of lived experience that enables community members to acutely understand and advocate for the needs of their neighborhood.

“It’s an excellent case study for how in a very short period of time, we can find those individuals, activate them with training, set them up in the community, and deliver the results that the largest system has not been able to produce,” she said.

Presently, Toronto is racing towards mass immunity, with 70 percent of Toronto adults having had at least one dose of the vaccine. But in this rush to return to normal, the remaining 30 percent of people must be remembered.

If the city doesn’t pay attention to their specific vulnerabilities, Ikura envisions a pattern similar to what happened with testing and vaccine distribution recurring.

“We’ll hit a 70 percent vaccination rate, the province will pat themselves on the back, and then COVID will start to spread again,” she said. “Because we didn’t get to the places where people are at risk.”

In order to reach these places, people who share and understand the experiences of the community are vital — people like Sundaralingam, who plans to give fliers to elders who require at-home vaccinations in her building.

Brannavy Jeyasundaram writes for The Local, an independent magazine exploring urban health and social issues in Toronto. This story is are part of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It originally appeared online here.