The Impacts of COVID-19 on Our Most Vulnerable

We’re all in this together. I’ve said it countless times over the past few weeks. And while we do still need to all work together to defeat COVID-19, it’s increasingly clear that when it comes to this pandemic, not everyone is equal. 

As Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health noted, our public health data shows a story of two different trends for the spread of COVID-19 in our City. One trend applies to the general population, while the other is for staff and residents in our congregate living sites: long-term care and retirement homes, shelters, supportive housing, and group homes. 

Across the general population, the strong physical distancing measures that the City has put in place are helping to flatten the curve and reduce the spread of the virus. This means what we’re doing is working  and we need to keep it up. But in congregate living sites, where many of our most vulnerable reside, cases and fatalities are continuing to rise. 

The reality is that COVID-19 preys on poverty. The physical distancing measures that have helped mitigate transmission in our community aren’t an option for everyone. You can’t stay home, if you don’t have one, and our shelter system wasn’t designed for the current reality. In long-term care homes, where residents may share rooms and other areas, outbreaks have spread rapidly. Front-line workers, including personal support workers, health care aides, and shelter staff, continue to face higher risks than those that can comfortably work from home. The truth is that the impacts of this pandemic are dramatically different, depending on your housing, income, and access to support. 

I’m deeply concerned about the devastating impact of COVID-19 that we are seeing among our most vulnerable residents. As Dr. de Villa noted, City staff have been working with long-term care and retirement homes to implement infection prevention and control measures, including twice-a-day screening of symptoms for staff and residents; enhanced cleaning of surfaces; appropriate use of protective equipment; and cancellation of visitors and group activities. 

We’re pushing the Province to implement proactive testing for all staff and residents in shelters and long-term care homes. We’re also advocating to other levels of government for adequate personal protective equipment for all frontline workers in social and community service settings. 

In the shelter system, clients with symptoms have been relocated to the City’s Isolation Facility for testing, and to our Recovery Centre where they can receive medical care and safely recover. At the same time, we are continuing to transition clients out of shelters and into hotel rooms, community centres, and housing units, in order to facilitate physical distancing. By the end of April, we aim to have relocated 2,000 clients. I’ve also asked the Province to implement a regional plan for shelters and recovery sites, and help us tackle homelessness by investing in supportive housing. 

All of this is a start, but it’s not enough. We must do more, not only to protect people in poverty from COVID-19 now, but to tackle the root causes of inequity that this pandemic has exposed. We can’t do this alone  we need all levels of government on board. But we can’t ignore just how connected access to safe, affordable housing is for the health of all our residents, our community and our City as a whole.