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Sask. physicians answer call for volunteers to provide vaccines

Last Friday night in Wynyard, Dr. Crystal Litwin was expecting the COVID-19 vaccine’s arrival in town after learning the previous day that it would be coming sooner than she anticipated. The thought was to vaccinate EMS staff that night and other health-care workers and long-term care residents the following day.

Around the same time Friday in Saskatoon, an email from the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) was circulating among physicians looking for volunteers to give the vaccine to long-term care residents throughout the city the following day. The call was answered quickly.

In both centres big and small, physicians rushed to volunteer – to fill an urgent need to provide people in their communities with the vaccine.

“Why? Because it was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Carla Holinaty, a Saskatoon family physician and one of the volunteers. “Patients needed us, so we came!”

'Physicians just need to be asked'

“Physicians just need to be asked. All of us are very willing to help where we can,” added Dr. Litwin, a family physician. “The SHA needs to reach out to docs and see how we can help with vaccinations or with other things during the pandemic. We truly do care about our patients, our communities, our colleagues, and our co-workers.”

Dr. Litwin volunteered last Saturday to vaccinate staff at the Wynyard Hospital, an integrated facility that includes hospital and long-term care. With one nurse on duty to handle inpatients, outpatients and emergency at the best of times, adding vaccinations to her workload would have been a tremendous burden.

“I just chose to help out because we are so low staffed, and our nurses are being asked to do so much during the pandemic, this was just another thing they were being asked to add to their responsibilities and their shift for the day,” Dr. Litwin told the SMA. “It’s not like we have extra staff we can phone in and say, ‘You do the vaccine and I’ll do the ER.’ It’s one person.

“I just felt compelled to help because I feel so badly that they have been burdened with all of this extra work and no extra staffing. That was probably my main motivation, to help out my colleagues, the nurses.”

Dr. Holinaty was not surprised that Saskatoon physicians responded in overwhelming numbers to the call to action.

“Doctors, at their core, are helpers. We care deeply about our patients and also everyone in our society,” she said. “To see so many of my colleagues so willing to give up their weekends to step up in a time of need was touching - not surprising at all, but touching.”

“As the president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, I was heartened to hear of the swift action my colleagues and fellow SMA members took,” said Dr. Barb Konstantynowicz, SMA president. “The pandemic is challenging all of us on many levels, but it’s through this kind of dedication and commitment that we will win over the virus. I want to extend a sincere thank you to all the physicians who stepped up.”

The next step, along with providing vaccinations, is to convince people to get their shots. Dr. Holinaty says information needs to be presented in plain language, with facts, to counter misinformation that’s circulating.

“Part of our job as physicians is to help our patients sort through what is out there and help them pick out fact from fiction,” she said. “Providing the vaccine is a huge step forward in being able to save lives and prevent serious illnesses. If we can keep our most vulnerable populations well, without COVID-19, we can also reduce the strain on our health-care system.”

'Doctors, at their core, are helpers'

Dr. Litwin experienced a reluctance among health-care workers to get vaccinated that she found alarming. Her community had a much lower vaccine uptake on Saturday than surrounding towns. Another clinic was held Sunday, but she doesn’t know if the statistics are an improvement over Saturday. She noted some people are motivated by “fear and anxiety and misinformation,” and they don’t trust that the vaccine will work, or that there won’t be side-effects.

“People just need time to see that people are going to tolerate it well and not have any terrible things happen to them after getting the vaccine, and that they are going to be all right,” Dr. Litwin said, adding vaccinations have to be done to keep COVID-19 out of the long-term care facility.

“We’ve been very fortunate to not have it in our facility yet,” she said. “The way that we can continue do that is to vaccinate our residents and the staff - that will help to keep it out of the facility – and hopefully things will gradually start to open up, we’ll have fewer restrictions and we won’t have to use all of the precautions in the future so people can start seeing their loved ones again.”

Dr. Holinaty noted doctors can only do so much. They rely on the public, as much as the public relies on their doctors to help out – whether by volunteering on their weekend days off to provide vaccines or through their everyday work in clinics and facilities across Saskatchewan.

“We beat COVID by considering how what we do impacts everyone around us,” she said. “We win when we realize that this is about we and not me. Doctors are here and willing to help whenever and wherever we can, but we need everyone to also do their parts. That means wearing your mask, washing your hands, avoiding going out unless it is necessary, and following all of the public health orders in place. It is hard. It has been a very, very long haul. Everyone is tired of this, but we need to keep staying strong and working together to get through to the other side.”

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