TORONTO -- City officials said Wednesday that they continue to provide mobile testing and a range of other services as COVID-19 case counts soar in the northwest part of the city.

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said at a news conference Wednesday that three wards in the northwest part of the city account for nearly one quarter of Toronto’s COVID-19 cases over the past three weeks.

“Based on data, my team determined that over the course of the pandemic so far, northwest Toronto stood out for higher rates of COVID-19, lower testing rates and higher positivity rates in comparison to other parts of our city,” de Villa said.

The three areas are Humber River-Black Creek, York South-Weston, and Etobicoke North.

Each ward is home to approximately four per cent of the city’s population, yet collectively they account for around 23 per cent of the city’s COVID-19 cases over the past three weeks, de Villa said.

Over the past three weeks, Humber River Blackcreek and Etobicoke North each accounted for 8.2 per cent of the city’s cases, while York South-Weston accounted for 6.7 per cent of all cases.

The overall Toronto case rate in the city for the same period is 172.7 cases per 100,000 people. However in Humber River-Black Creek it was 387.8; In Etobicoke North it was 356.7; and in York South-Weston it was 293.1.

“To sum it up, three adjacent wards in one part of the city – representing roughly 16 per cent of the total population – bore approximately 23.1 per cent, almost one quarter, of all Toronto COVID-19 cases over the past three weeks,” de Villa said.

She said the three areas also contain neighbourhoods with some of the highest percent positivity values in the city. She said only four of the 26 neighbourhoods included in the three wards had percent positivity values that were less than four per cent.

One neighbourhood, Mount-Olive-Silverstone-Jamestown, had a positivity rate of 19 per cent – almost one in five people tested – for the week of Oct. 11-17.

“This is not a new story, just the latest chapter in a troubling one,” de Villa said.

Toronto Public Health has been working to combat the spread of the disease in the northwest part of the city through information, direct interaction with residents and providing easy access to health services, de Villa said.

She pointed to the city’s COVID- 19 Outreach Rapid Response Team, which promotes community pop-up testing sites and collaborates with community agencies to help develop promotional posters and social media campaigns.

The city has held 17 popup testing availabilities over the past two months and has promoted them by distributing posters at apartment buildings, places of worship and grocery stores.

The Toronto Public Health Board and city council have also called on the province to provide more testing availability in the northwest part of the city.

In a statement, Coun. Joe Cressy, who chairs the board, said that residents in Toronto’s northwest are facing challenges accessing testing.

“We're not all equal when it comes to COVID-19. People that live and work in the northwest areas of our city have been disproportionately impacted by this virus,” Cressy said. “These communities have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 but still face challenges accessing testing and supports.”

Coun. Michael Ford, who represents Etobicoke North and is the nephew of Premier Doug Ford, also issued a statement thanking Toronto Public Health for their work.

“I want to thank the team at Toronto Public Health for the incredible work they have been doing throughout the pandemic, and for working closely with me to fight the spread of this virus in my community,” Ford said.

He pointed to efforts such as distributing free masks in the community and providing mobile testing centres, but acknowledged there is more to be done.

Poverty a factor

De Villa said health officials know that people of different races and income levels are disproportionately affected by the virus.

“While we are all in this together, our experiences living with COVID-19 can be quite different,” she said. “Those differences illustrate health inequity. Simply put, when the health of some people is different from others, because the circumstances in which they live are so different – often so unequal – that one unfairly suffers where another succeeds.”

She pointed out that 30 per cent of Toronto residents are currently classified as living below the low-income threshold, but account for 50 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

She also noted that just because an area is seeing more infections, it doesn’t mean that people necessarily acquired the infection in that area. She said that many people, such as nurses and grocery store workers, can’t work from home and have to travel to other parts of the city for their livelihoods.

“They deserve our support as they go to work,” she said.

While the city is calling on the province to provide greater access to testing in the area, De Villa acknowledged that she has heard from some community partners that there is some reluctance in the community to get tested, possibly for fear of losing income.

“The harsh reality is that if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, there is concern around what that means for work, given that there are isolation issues,” de Villa said. “And, you know, what that will mean for family livelihood.

“If you're the sole breadwinner, and you are unable to work and your circumstances are such that if you're not working, you're not taking an income, your entire family livelihood is seriously in jeopardy. So that's one example of the kinds of issues that might actually get in the way of people taking advantage of testing, even in circumstances where that testing is warranted.”

The city is currently working on a COVID- 19 Response Equity Action Plan to help address some of the inequities of the pandemic. The report is expected to be presented to council in December.

De Villa said the health of the city is determined by the health of “the whole city” and added that she hopes the inequalities highlighted by the pandemic will lead all levels of government to design better policy to address them.