While Toronto is reporting an alarming resurgence of COVID-19 infections following a summer of eased restrictions — some neighbourhoods never experienced relief from the first wave, community workers say.

The strain the novel coronavirus has placed on residents of hard-hit neighbourhoods like York University Heights, located in the northwest end of the city, has not let up since the pandemic began, said Cheryl Prescod, executive director of the Black Creek Community Health Centre.

“Many neighbourhoods have had a lull, but in the hot-spot zones, they haven’t had that,” Prescod told CBC Toronto.

“Folks have just continuously been burdened with this over time; they never had the reprieve,” she said. 

York University Heights — bound by Steeles Avenue West in the north, Sheppard Avenue West in the south, Albion Road in the east and Black Creek in the west — saw 81 new cases between Sept 1. and Sept 28. 

That’s the third highest number in the city over that time period, behind the Waterfront and Niagara communities. It’s just one of many neighbourhoods in North York with a long history of health disparities affecting mostly people of colour. Those areas have continued to report high case counts, regardless of age group. 

Tackling a “second wave” into the fall and winter brings a host of new challenges that will require innovative solutions to keep residents safe, community leaders told CBC News. 

Neighbourhood historically neglected: community worker

York University Heights has a total of 533 cases since the pandemic began, which is nearly four times the average of 135 infections per neighbourhood, excluding cases that have no regional data. 

It’s been no surprise that the neighbourhood has grappled with a steeper number of infections, Prescod says.

“We knew that social-economic status really prevents people from having the best access in health care to begin with,” she said. 

The City of Toronto found people of colour made up 83 per cent of the city’s COVID-19 cases, according to data tracked until mid-August.

Cheryl Prescod, executive director of the Black Creek Community Health Centre, has been setting up mobile COVID-19 testing centres in her northwest Toronto community, which has been a hotspot for the disease. She has also been helping recruit participants for an antibody study. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The city has identified health disparities linked to social and economic factors, stress caused by institutionalized racism, and inequitable access to health care as reasons for the crushing impact of the virus on racialized groups.

But while Toronto started collecting race-based data on COVID-19 near the end of May — residents in hard-hit neighbourhoods have long been vocal about the communities’ needs prior to the pandemic, community workers told CBC News in a previous report. 

From the 1980s, there’s been a consistent lack of sustained funding and “tangible, long-term improvement goals” and “any kind of cultural strategy or funding” in the area, according to a 2015 report published by researchers from community organizations and academics at York University.

Housing and working conditions are a major factor fuelling the spread of the disease in the neighbourhood this month, and in the previous months, Prescod says. For example, she points out, many workers in the area don’t have the option of sheltering in place or working from home.

“Many people in that area are in public-facing work … such as in transit, in food service or in stores. And many of them are [personal support workers],” she said. “Often-times, they’re having to have three or four jobs to survive.”

Nearly a quarter of individuals in York University Heights have a commute time greater than one hour — which is why Prescod says she’s running an initiative at the community health centre to add more pop-up testing sites in the area. 

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Many residents do not have time to commute to a testing site and wait in line for hours, she adds. Prescod says her organization is working with Toronto Public Health (TPH) to not only create accessible testing sites but hire health-care workers for the sites who can communicate in multiple languages spoken in the neighbourhood. 

“Having more access and timely access to community-based testing might be more helpful to those communities. It’s not about doing this blanket across the city, but it’s doing it where it’s needed the most,” she said. 

TPH conducts an outreach program that gives presentations on COVID-19 to the hardest hit communities, including sessions in York University Heights, said Dr. Vinita Dubey, the city’s associate medical officer of health, in a statement to CBC News. 

Dubey says TPH is also continuing to consult with community agencies that serve those who are over-represented in COVID-19 infection rates, focusing on “health promotion messaging,” working to increase options for isolation, and engaging in long-term planning to create a more equitable health system.

Fall bringing new concerns in child care, youth well-being

New issues are emerging in the fall months related to the impact of the novel coronavirus in hard-hit neighbourhoods, experts say.

Many families in multi-generational households have caregivers that are going back to work — meaning there’s a greater dependance on grandparents for child care, said Michelle Dagnino, the executive director of the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre.

“We have a large number of our residents who are doing a lot of the front-line work,” she said, adding that residents often take crowded buses to get to their jobs.

“They’re at a higher exposure risk and are often coming home to … shared households.”

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The lack of a national, affordable child-care program has left these essential workers scrambling to determine who will watch their children, Dagnino says, as programs their kids have attended prior to the pandemic, through schools or community programming, are not running at the same capacity. 

“We see people depend on family members or sometimes neighbours for child-care and for those social supports that don’t exist publicly,” she said.

Dagnino adds that many people may be unaware of what resources are available, as not everyone has the ability to view Premier Doug Ford’s news conferences on the virus.

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Education said it is committed to supporting the safe reopening of child-care centres in Ontario and is offering funding to help centres do so if they require it.

The Ontario child-care tax credit also provides families with low-to-moderate incomes with up to $6,000 per child under the age of seven and $3,750 for kids aged seven to 16, said Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for the education minister. 

Young people in the neighbourhood who are coping with COVID-19, school and supporting their families by being essential workers are facing their own concerns as well, says Risa Antoine, community director at the Jane and Finch Boys and Girls Club. 

“You have an older sibling that’s responsible for five younger kids. Communicating with their teachers, they find very challenging,” she said. 

Many households have caregivers that are at work all day, and have opted to put their children in school even if they don’t feel it’s safe as they have no other choice, Antoine says. 

The Boys and Girls Club is running a virtual program to help with homework support. But they can only help so many kids a day as they have a limited number of computers in the building, and limit the number of youth there at a time, she said. 

Antoine is also pushing for more mental health supports for youth, and more information for households about the services available to help young people cope with mental distress during the pandemic. 

“It something that needs to be discussed,” she told CBC News.

“Young people may not realize they’re feeling down. Because of COVID-19 and the issues in the community, their mental state is not the greatest right now.”

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