It's an early morning in late August, and a small team of immunizers from Vancouver Coastal (VCH) are loading up on supplies for the day. They'll need enough COVID-19 vaccine and supporting gear for a self-sustaining clinic. Shortly after, the group board a water taxi and sail into English Bay and out to sea. Under grey skies and through choppy waves, they eventually pull up beside a black and red freighter the size of a football field. Carefully, they unload their own precious cargo, making their way up more than 60 steps to the deck of the hulking ship.
With only a couple hours to spare, they swiftly set up, creating a makeshift vaccine clinic using some office space and the mess hall onboard. Meanwhile, dressed in their finest threads, more than a dozen crew members from around the world eagerly roll up their sleeves and await their jab. Once everyone has had their turn – and a few selfies and thank yous later – the team quickly pack up their supplies and make their way off the ship and back on the water to the next freighter.
For the last month, the team of immunizers have been boarding the giant freighters that dot English Bay and Vancouver Harbour. Their mission: to immunize as many seafarers with the COVID-19 vaccine as possible.
Since the campaign began a month ago, the team has embarked on 10 ships, immunizing 120 sailors and crew members from across the globe including, the Philippines, China, Korea, India and Ukraine.
Sometimes the ships are docked at port terminals, and other times the team goes directly to them at sea.
For Paul Maximus, the opportunity to just stand on one of these huge vessels is a dream come true. The physician put his naturopathic practice on hold early this year and joined VCH's immunization campaign. After supporting a number of the pop-up clinics around Vancouver, he jumped at the chance to be part of the small seafaring vaccine team.
“To be able to deliver a vaccine that is so remarkably safe and effective to these people who are so grateful and excited to receive it, it's just awesome," Paul said, noting these ships have often bounced from port-to-port with Canada being the only country offering the vaccine to crew.
Marta Filipski, an operations leader with VCH's vaccine campaign, is also the team lead for the small group.
“We have to be very flexible and go with the flow. We've vaccinated in some pretty creative spaces and every freighter is unique" she said, pointing out they adhere to all of the infection control measures of a mass vaccine clinic as well as follow maritime safety protocols. “We also get a pretty good workout jumping off water taxis, and climbing up rope ladders."
The team consists of immunizers, an IPAC clinician, as well as support staff for aftercare and administration. Working with a number of different partners including CERES, Chamber of Shipping, Port of Vancouver, the BC Maritime Employers Association and the various terminals in the region, the team from VCH set sail once a week and hit up as many ships as they can that day. It usually turns out to be three to four vessels per outing.
While there are some logistical challenges offering these clinics each week, the immunizers are always greeted by a grateful crew.
Marta noted many of the crew have been on these ships for over a year and being vaccinated is an opportunity for them to feel safer stepping off the ship for shore leave and returning to their families.
“VCH and the provincial and federal governments have committed to supporting this small but mighty group of vulnerable workers, that really are driving our global economy," she said, adding many of the crew share stories about their fear going back home where the Delta variant is rampant and the vaccine is scarce. “Vaccinating our seafarers, given the state of the pandemic globally, is just the right thing to do. It's been a privilege to be a part of this program."