At the end of her Feb. 21 sermon, Rev. Nicola Skinner of Grace Anglican Church in Markham, Ont., found herself saying that she wanted to help senior parishioners get vaccinated.
She backed up her words with action, and as a result, nearly 3,000 seniors from Markham and nearby Whitchurch-Stouffville have booked COVID-19 vaccination appointments — some of them even got help with a ride.
Markham & Stouffville Vaccines has also meant a lot to those organizing the initiative. “It’s made everyone feel helpful. Made them feel like they were contributing,” says Rev. Skinner.
At the time of that sermon, the Ontario government had announced seniors over the age of 80 would soon be able to book shots online — which Rev. Skinner knew would be a challenge. Meanwhile, she read an article in The Guardian about so-called vaccine angels who were helping people get their shots. She wondered how she and her congregation could be vaccine angels.
“I’ll help you,” parishioner Ray Lai told her right away. He owns his own software company and knew he had the tech skills to offer assistance. Lai and his family had joined Grace in December, seeking community, meaning and opportunities to give back.
Rev. Skinner and Lai kept in touch over the next few days, tracking announcements regarding the rollout. “If we can’t make heads or tails of this, how can we expect seniors to?” Lai recalls saying to Rev. Skinner of York Region’s four major vaccination sites and three booking systems.
Lai quickly put up a web site called Markham Vaccinates that features an easy-to-fill-out information form, a video of Rev. Skinner explaining how it all worked, and the phone number for Grace Church. (For those who call in, Rev. Skinner and her staff enter information on their behalf into an information form.)
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The site went up on Thursday, Feb. 25. By the end of the following weekend, 90 people had signed up. When the local public health unit’s portal went live on March 1, Lai was ready with four computers and three browsers. It crashed but he managed to book 50 appointments that first day and 40 more the next.
By the end of the first week, Markham Vaccinates had 1,000 registrations. Rev. Skinner recruited a team of 12 to call seniors about their vaccination time slots. “Everyone is so thrilled to get their appointments. These are very happy phone calls,” she says.
Lai created a Google Sheet volunteers could update in real time. He also built a software program that alerted him when new appointments became available.
Meanwhile, Bethany Nolson, outreach director at Cornerstone Christian Community Church in Markham, heard about Markham Vaccines before it launched. Since spring 2020, she had been running a team of volunteer grocery drivers, so she called and offered to find and organize drivers for appointments.
“They have gone above and beyond,” Nolson says of her 10 drivers. For instance, one ride involved a passenger who had not left her apartment in a year. “Her driver took her on an extra loop around the block so she could see the flowers coming up and see that spring was coming.”
By mid-March, Whitchurch-Stouffville got involved, a move sparked by the mayor. The town’s public library launched a hotline for call-ins while Lai added new members to his Google sheet, purchased the url for stouffvillevaccinates.com and rebranded the site as Markham & Stouffville Vaccinates.
Every time the province expanded eligibility, the team would get a rush of calls and online submissions. Lai once booked 800 people in a single day. He has had to juggle this effort with his day job and two young daughters. “I’m on a personal crusade to get people vaccinated so we can have fewer deaths and a better summer, and my children in the arms of my parents again.”
Requests trickle in now that many seniors have had their shots, but that may change if people need help with rebooking appointments for second doses or require rides. Lai plans to have a data deletion ceremony when it’s all over. Until then: “We’re going to keep running things until there are no more seniors who need their shots.”
Diane Peters is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor. She covers health, business, science, urban planning and whatever else comes her way.
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