Toronto will begin vaccinating people experiencing homelessness against COVID-19 this week.
The province gave the city the green light to prioritize people in its shelter system, as more doses of the vaccine are set to arrive soon, Toronto said in a statement Sunday. Doses will first be supplied to shelters facing the highest risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.
“This work will ramp up in the coming weeks as we receive more vaccines from the Government of Canada, and it won’t stop until every Toronto resident who wants a vaccine has been vaccinated,” said Mayor John Tory in a statement.
The plan follows weeks of calls from homeless advocacy groups to vaccinate Canada’s 230,000 people experiencing homelessness as soon as possible.
People with a recent history of homelessness were 20 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and five times more likely to die within the first 21 days of their positive test result, found a recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
“As a society, we already fail to provide housing, adequate income, or food to this population,” wrote the Canadian Network for Health for the Health and Housing of People Experiencing Homelessness in a position statement earlier this month. “As such could we not at least provide vaccination as a minimal protection for a group who have none?”
Public health guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19, including staying home and physical distancing, become impossible when a person doesn’t have a home, the group said. Especially in the winter, when people are escaping the cold, shelters become crowded and the virus spreads like “wildfire.”
Watch: Montreal’s homeless camp grows during pandemic. Story continues below.
Ten of Toronto’s shelters are currently experiencing outbreaks, with Seaton House reporting 49 cases as of last week.
Other cities are also experiencing outbreaks in shelters. One of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in Ottawa was in a shelter, infecting 60 residents and eight staff members in January. A women’s shelter outbreak was linked to two long-term care home workers who were staying at the facility because their income wasn’t enough to cover rent.
In Hamilton, Ont., people are opting to sleep outside even in the winter to avoid overcrowded congregate living. Outbreaks are ongoing in at least eight shelters. Hamilton Public Health began vaccinating shelter staff and residents on Saturday through its mobile clinic.
Most provinces, including B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, plan to vaccinate populations living and working in congregate settings in the spring. Vancouver has already begun vaccinating people who are homeless or live in shelters.
The province confirmed with city officials that vaccinating those experiencing homelessness is now part of its Phase One, along with residents 80 years and older as soon as doses become available.