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Toronto city health staff gave approximately 2.7 million more doses of flu shots to city workers than to many other Torontonians, but the city later distributed those vaccines to other employees at a reduced cost, according to a Canadian coalition of community groups.
Since the start of the school year last September, around 3.2 million people have received vaccines through the city’s $15.5m flu shot program, according to data released this week by the city’s public health department.
But some community groups said the new numbers revealed that city government’s flu shot program — which provides an annual injection to its lowest-paid, largely immigrant employees and offers “reimbursement discounts” — effectively benefits city workers, causing them to be vaccinated at a lower cost, in a manner reminiscent of efforts in the UK to deny flu vaccines to those unable to afford them.
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“Toronto’s City staff are showing government officials, particularly provincial public health authorities, that vaccinations are a fundamental part of a healthy society,” said a report released by the Friends of Community Health, an umbrella group representing more than 400 organizations. “While these workers perform some of the most important jobs in the city, they are not immunized.”
The report noted that the Toronto city council passed a resolution in 2016 to ensure that the city’s employees receive the influenza vaccine, but a spokesperson for the city health department said the policy does not change the funding that the public health department provides for the program.
The numbers released by the city health department show that some 68% of city employees have received a flu shot in the 2018-19 school year. This, however, is only up from the nearly 60% of city employees who got the shot a year earlier, even though the health department expanded the program’s locations this year.
Toronto health department: ‘Keeping kids safe and healthy isn’t about … shopping around and taking funding.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian
Nearly 2,000 city employees have been designated as part of a “vulnerable group” that are also eligible for discounted or free vaccines based on the 2016 health department resolution, the report said. Almost all of these employees receive their flu shots free through the city.
But slightly more than 500 city employees, working at a range of high-risk settings, such as homeless shelters, have not received the vaccine this school year, the report said.
“[The report shows] that the city does not have any strategy to further vaccinate these groups of people,” said Karen Lynch, CEO of Stop Flu Now, a Toronto-based public health non-profit that helps ensure that poor, minority and First Nations families are vaccinated.
Her group paid the city $40,000 in January 2017 to ensure that all its employees received their flu shots. She filed a complaint with the Toronto city health department last July about the city’s response to her group’s concerns about its vaccination program.
“The Toronto public health has taken millions of dollars in funding from health employers [such as Stop Flu Now] and taken it away because the health employers at Stop Flu Now take the flu vaccine,” Lynch said.
The health department did not offer an immediate response to the complaints filed by the Stop Flu Now and several other community groups. But its spokesperson, Kristen Fitzpatrick, called the flu shots program “the most financially efficient way to vaccinate more people in Toronto” and said the process has made the most efficient use of city funds.
But the department will expand the seasonal and H1N1 shots later this month, Fitzpatrick said.
The report also reviewed data from flu vaccinations given to people who are high-risk such as school teachers, families with children with chronic health conditions and people who work in vulnerable settings.
According to data released this week, more than 90% of high-risk participants in Toronto have received their vaccine this school year. It was not clear how many of these recipients were school teachers, families with children with chronic health conditions or people who work in vulnerable settings.
Fitzpatrick said the city is reviewing