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Dana McIntosh, a community outreach worker for Black Creek Community Health Centre, gives a flyer to neighbour Tom Hodge to encourage him to get tested for COVID-19 in Toronto on Dec. 17, 2020.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Even though she knew the eyes of her community were on her during the pandemic, Dana McIntosh was adamant she wouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine. Ms. McIntosh, who is Black, shared some of the same fears about the vaccine as others in her north-end Toronto neighbourhood, a COVID-19 hot spot.

She was concerned about the long-term side effects. Some worried the vaccine might give them COVID-19. Others had a general mistrust of a medical system that had made them feel their pain was not real, had underfunded mental-health supports for marginalized communities and treated their ancestors as science experiments.

As a volunteer community ambassador with the Black Creek Community Health Centre (BCCHC), Ms. McIntosh, 43, knew she would be expected to persuade her neighbours in the Jane and Finch area to register to receive the vaccine with the same enthusiasm she had used to bring them out to community testing sites in recent months. She had gamely stuck a testing swab up her nose eight different times, but there was no way she was getting the vaccine until it had been out for “at least 18 months,” she insisted just weeks ago.

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“I can’t go jump and take it,” she said in December, when vaccinations in Canada had just begun. “How do I know they have the right formula now?”

But last weekend, Ms. McIntosh rolled up her sleeve to receive her first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Ms. McIntosh’s about-face is perhaps a surprising, yet reassuring, sign for health care providers as Canada prepares for mass vaccinations in the months ahead – especially in the highly racialized neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel Region that have consistently had the highest COVID-19 case counts.

Ms. McIntosh is the sort of person who can’t walk a block without stopping to say hi to a neighbour, running into an old classmate or encountering students from her school, where she’s a special-needs teaching assistant. She’s outspoken and always up in everyone’s business: helping people find housing, rallying to stop deportations, assisting seniors with booking doctors’ appointments and much more.

Cheryl Prescod, executive director of Black Creek Community Health Centre, knew Ms. McIntosh had the power to bring local residents out to vaccination clinics – if only she herself could be convinced the vaccine was safe.

At the end of January, Ms. Prescod organized a virtual town hall to inform the community about the vaccine. Ms. McIntosh was on the call, which included health professionals and scientists, some of whom were Black and some of whom were familiar faces. The goal of the meeting, as well as several other local workshops, was for these experts to build trust in the vaccine among community ambassadors like Ms. McIntosh, who would then be tasked with building that same trust with their neighbours.

At the start of the session, Ms. Prescod conducted a poll – only 54 per cent of the audience said they would get the vaccine if offered it, while others were opposed or unsure.

During the meeting, Ms. McIntosh shared questions from the community with the speakers. In the weeks since the vaccine’s approval, some conspiracy theories had become so prevalent and anxiety-inducing, she had to immediately delete them when such messages appeared on her phone.

“The vaccine[s] ... have a microchip that are being put into people’s arms to keep track of them,” she recounted, relaying a common concern as her voice trembled with nerves. “And the other one is [that] both vaccines are here to kill people of colour in low-income areas.”

Matthieu Kamwa, a senior global health consultant with the World Health Organization, responded by noting similar fears were shared when vaccines for measles and meningitis were introduced in some parts of the world – and those vaccines have since protected millions, he pointed out. Yes, vaccine development often takes years, he said, but the COVID-19 vaccines went through a “high-speed channel” and their efficacy is backed by scientific evidence.

Dr. Kamwa, who is Black, reassured Ms. McIntosh without mocking or dismissing the questions – and offered ideas of how to respond when neighbours asked her about those theories.

“It is not obvious to everyone that the vaccine is the right choice, and to assume that it is and then treat them as somehow stupid or misinformed when they suggest otherwise is not going to create any kind of connection with that person. And it’s certainly not going to convince them,” says Maya Goldenberg, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph and author of the forthcoming book Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science.

After the information session, Ms. McIntosh thought about a beloved neighbour who had recently died from COVID-19. She thought about how her young children would not be vaccinated for a while, if at all; and that her mother, who suffers from asthma and heart issues, might not survive if she got COVID-19. Her fear of not being vaccinated now outweighed her fear of being vaccinated.

On Saturday, she and nine other community ambassadors and 25 staff at BCCHC received their first doses of the vaccine.

Ms. McIntosh already has her script ready for when she begins her campaign to get her neighbours vaccinated in the coming weeks. As always, she will be honest with them, admitting that she’s still nervous about any potential long-term side effects of the vaccine. But she will also say, “Look at me – I got it and I’m standing in front of you.”

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, says results from COVID-19 vaccinations so far are encouraging enough that she thinks the need for massive lockdowns could be over before the end of the summer. But Tam says some of the more personal measures, like wearing masks and limiting close contact outside our households, may be with us longer.

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