TORONTO - About 1,000 people in Toronto's shelters and homeless encampments have received a COVID-19 vaccine, a health organization said, noting that immunization teams are learning how to build trust with the population to overcome hesitancy.

Dr. Andrew Bond, medical director of the Inner City Health Associates clinic that's part of the vaccine effort, said crews mobilized swiftly after the province identified individuals experiencing homeless as a priority group on Feb. 28.

“About 1,000 people have already been vaccinated in the last week,” Bond said. “It's really impressive to see that happen so quickly.”

The effort is being led by community-based health organizations, several hospitals, Ontario Health and Toronto Public Health, and is trying to reach those in more than 100 shelters, drop-in centres and encampments.

The province initially had a two-tier vaccination plan for the homeless shelter system - shelter workers were in Phase 1 of Ontario's immunization effort while shelter residents and those living in homeless encampments were part of Phase 2.

After calls from advocates to prioritize the homeless, the province shifted those individuals into Phase 1 at the end of last month.

Seven people in Toronto's shelter system have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic hit last year and 985 have contracted the virus, according to the city's data.

The city currently has 11 shelters that are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. More contagious variants have also been found in several shelters, with 79 people testing positive for one to date, Toronto Public Health said.

Speed is of paramount importance as variants spread, Bond said.

“We know it's going to take six to eight weeks at the very least to really do the big push to get many people vaccinated,” he said.

Despite early success, Bond said vaccine uptake among the homeless population has varied depending on the manner in which shots are offered.

Hospital crews heading directly into shelters to offer a vaccination blitz see lower uptake, he said.

“Those operations tend to show 30 to 40 per cent of clients will get vaccinated,” he said.

A hospital partnering with a local community agency, however, sees greater success, Bond said.

In those instances, the agencies that have relationships with shelter residents are able to go over plans, provide information and address concerns with individuals a day or two before vaccination teams head in, he said.

That has helped overcome vaccine hesitancy, Bond said, with upwards of an 80 per cent success rate.

Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network, said such collaborative efforts are important.

“The vaccination effort is going to move at the speed of trust,” Boozary said. “You cannot discount the importance of partnerships in these efforts.”

Boozary's hospital network has held vaccination clinics for homeless individuals at 15 different sites and he said the immunization drive has “infused hope.”

“This is not just a semblance of safety, but true protection now from something that has brought so much darkness into the world and disproportionately so on marginalized communities.”

Linda Jackson, the senior clinical program director for community and primary care at Unity Health, said her hospital network will be vaccinating shelter residents five days a week for the foreseeable future.

Unity Health spearheaded a vaccine pilot program in shelters months earlier and learned to be flexible, Jackson said. Due to the transient nature of those living in shelters, sometimes fewer people than anticipated shop up for shots and sometimes more, she said.

“We'll sometimes do a curbside pickup of more vaccine and get it back to the shelter if we need more,” she said.

The work has been rewarding for her and her team, Jackson said, energizing a group of health-care workers who've been working non-stop since the pandemic hit.

“I feel very optimistic, it's so rewarding and sometimes you leave in tears because people are so grateful,” she said.

“The efforts that people are putting in does feel like we're getting on the other side of this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.