Science meets faith at fully booked vaccine clinic

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

3/09/2021 2:35:39 PM

A recent vaccine drive at a Melbourne church has not only immunised hundreds of people, but also provided a template for reaching CALD communities.

Dr Magdalena Simonis.
Dr Magdalena Simonis was among healthcare professionals offering their time over the weekend. (Image: Supplied/Constantly Flashing Photography)

For four days at the end of August, the hall at the St George Greek Orthodox Church in Thornbury was transformed.
The space, typically the domain of priests and worshipers, was taken over by nurses and doctors who quickly turned it into a COVID-safe mass-vaccination hub.
More than 980 vaccinations were administered during the fully booked service, mostly on Greek-speaking people who had so far resisted generic calls from health agencies and government to get vaccinated.
Dr Magdalena Simonis, a GP and member of the RACGP Expert Committee – Quality Care (REC–QC), was overwhelmed by the positive community response.
‘We had a really good turnout; the sessions were fully booked – we were doing like five or six people at a time. So it was pretty chock-a-block all day,’ she told newsGP.
‘We as doctors were there to help a lot of the older people understand the benefits of having the vaccine and could answer their questions regarding AstraZeneca. Some came in saying “no, I want the Pfizer” and ended up leaving with the AstraZeneca.
‘They understood that they were being given the one that was available and that was going to serve them best given the circumstances we’re in. And so it’s been a terrific success in that respect.’
The need to address vaccine hesitancy among culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities has been apparent since the early stages of the national rollout.
In July, the scale of the problem was laid bare in research commissioned by the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS), which found 29% of respondents were unsure whether they wanted to get vaccinated, while a further 13% were outright opposed.
NCOSS CEO Joanna Quilty said the findings served as ‘a big wake-up call’, highlighting that government websites ‘simply do not cut it’ when it comes to communicating with CALD groups, pinpointing the need to work with local community leaders directly.
The response to last weekend’s pop-up vaccination clinic appears to support this assertion.
Translators were on site to assist, as were Greek-speaking doctors, while the hundreds who turned out were encouraged by strong grassroots community promotion, led by the Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria, the Hellenic Medical Society of Australia (HMSA) and DPV Health.
As a result, appointments were solidly booked out from 9 am through to 6 pm, with queues of people lining up even earlier just to ‘try their luck’.
‘It was really a community service,’ Dr Simonis said. ‘People could come and have their vaccine in the community, in the place where they live.’
Meanwhile, hosting vaccinations on the grounds of the church – a meeting of religion and science – also proved to be a comfort of sorts, Dr Simonis said.
‘Where the conspiracy theories had filtered through and there were doubts about the safety and about the origins of the vaccine and whether or not there were embryonic elements from aborted foetuses in there, it basically helped diffuse those concerns for the hesitant older Greek population,’ she said.
With more than a fifth of Australians speaking a language other than English at home, Dr Simonis said having doctors who spoke Greek – like herself and fellow GP Dr Ben Filipopoulos – made a world of difference for people attending the hub, particularly the elderly.
‘They were so thrilled,’ she said. ‘And they felt very proud also that we were taking the care and time out of our weekend to be there.
‘They know that we’ve got families and other responsibilities, and that this is because we care about them.
‘We want our grandparents and their friends to be able to mobilise again in the community, we want them to be able to connect with their grandchildren and families again – and we certainly don’t want a repeat of what we saw last year with the disproportionate number of aged citizens contracting the virus and dying from it.’

The vaccination hub will return in six weeks for the second round of Pfizer doses to be administered. (Images: Supplied/Constantly Flashing Photography) 

Along with AstraZeneca, Pfizer was also available on site for younger eligible cohorts, and the vaccination hub will return in six weeks for the second round of Pfizer doses to be administered.
A spokesperson from Victoria’s Department of Health (DH) told newsGP that it was guided by community and faith leaders, recognising that cultural safety plays an important role in healthcare.
‘Building on strong community partnerships and support from in-language media, we worked closely with DPV Health and volunteer medical staff from the Hellenic Medical Society of Australia and local community to ensure Greek-speaking medical staff were on hand to support those with English as a second language,’ the spokesperson said.
‘The open-access clinic demonstrates the importance of working with local communities to understand and address cultural barriers to vaccination.’
The spokesperson also noted that the DH is currently planning other community-led vaccine initiatives across the state.
A similar concept, involving DPV Health, is being implemented at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Mill Park, a Hindu temple that will be transformed into a pop-up vaccination hub from 3–6 September.
While there were logistical hurdles to overcome, Dr Simonis says the model’s success proves it is possible and a worthwhile endeavour to ensure vulnerable communities are protected against COVID-19.
‘These are really important demonstrations of how you can take professional people who are from a CALD background – whether you’re an ethnic majority or an ethnic minority – and replicate the same thing,’ she said.
‘It’s a really good example of how you can connect your community leaders with religious institutions and leaders and local government, and you can blend the three and implement something that’s really effective.’
But for Dr Simonis, lending her services was beyond a professional commitment; it was also very personal.
‘I can’t even begin to describe the feeling,’ she said. ‘To me, it’s a really special part of giving back to the generation that came here and took all the risks.
‘Their youth was really overtaken by a pursuit to create a better life for their offspring; they worked in a country where they didn’t know the systems, the language, and they left their loved ones behind with the desire and selflessness to build something for the next generation.
‘I see myself as a beneficiary of all the effort and sacrifice that they’ve made. I really felt like this was giving back.’
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Dr Katherine Anne Walker   4/09/2021 11:37:13 PM

Great story. Thanks for sharing this wonderful collaboration to support our local greek community. Let's use this of an example of how to reach out and vaccinate our many diverse communities.

Dr Ilse Du Toit   7/09/2021 7:47:52 PM

Great initiative! Where does one start to organise such a community vaccine effort off site (of a GP practice)? I'd love some guidance if anyone can get in touch... As you say, many logistical hurdles to overcome.