Glebe family physician Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth had a problem with the often-baffling process and pure battle to find, book and receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Ottawa. Beyond the complicated online systems and poorly marketed pop-up clinics, there was a huge gap in the system — utilizing family doctors. So, she set out to fix it.
“As a family doctor I’ve been advocating since January for primary care to be more involved,” said Kaplan-Myrth, who organized a cross-Canada panel in February that landed facetime with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address equity and barriers in terms of accessing the vaccine. Trudeau later acknowledged the gap in not including family doctors in the initial rollout.
“I’ve been very involved in doing what I can to amplify the voices of family doctors. It makes no sense for family doctors to be excluded, but that’s what was happening at a provincial level.”
Once Ottawa Public Health finally turned to family doctors who wanted to administer vaccines, she got to work with what’s been dubbed “Jabapalooza” — a nickname given to her days of vaccinating patients and community members by someone receiving their dose.
“We welcomed the community to come and participate [in the Jabapaloozas]. People felt like I was doing them a favour! But they were doing the community a service and we are very grateful,” said Kaplan-Myrth, who had medical students and other professional volunteers on hand to help out.
David Granovsky wasn’t eligible yet through the provincial booking system, and was on half a dozen pharmacy wait lists ... with no results. So when he learned about Jabapalooza on Twitter, he jumped at it.
“She’s a hero,” said Granovsky. “She is an amazing doctor and I was so happy that she accepted me as I am not her patient.”
Granovsky got his first shot at a late-April Jabapalooza, and his second on June 19. He’s also helped spread the word on Twitter, encouraging his followers looking for an easier booking process to take advantage of Kaplan-Myrth's events.
Kaplan-Myrth said it’s all to address gaps, “more like chasms” in the healthcare system.
“Things like VaxHunters create the environment where if you can jump in your car and drive for a vaccine immediately, it’s great, but if you’re 90 or don’t have flexible working hours, it was really hard to find a spot,” she said. VaxHunters is a Twitter account that rapidly went viral, scanning openings in public health and provincial systems, as well as pharmacies, across the country.
As a family doctor, it just made sense to Kaplan-Myrth to push so hard to get vaccines — first and foremost she sees it as her responsibility to advocate for her patients.
“Our patients were begging us to be able to come to us. That was true for our 90-year-olds, down to our teenagers. All of them. There’s no group that said I’d rather have to go to a mass vaccine clinic or have to hunt around for a pharmacy,” explained Kaplan-Myrth. “They already have relationships with us and trust us and we know their medical histories. We’re set up as a safe space for people who feel marginalized or vulnerable — they know that when they come to my office it’s a safe space.”
This rings especially true for people who might have problems with crowds or unfamiliar spaces, as well as those with a needle phobia.
Before becoming a doctor, Kaplan-Myrth was an anthropologist, studying the politics of health policy. With this background, she is uniquely positioned to ask the right questions.
“If we wanted the vaccine rollout to be as fast as possible, why wouldn’t we include all the primary care providers? Now that it is at 12 and over, it should also be pediatricians,” Kaplan-Myrth believes. Just next week she’s speaking at a conference on equity in medicine.
While she’s at the mercy of public health when it comes to receiving a vaccine supply, the Jabapaloozas have vaccinated about 1,400 people so far and will follow up directly with people as they’re eligible — and as they have supply — for second doses.
Jabapalooza and Kaplan-Myrth’s work has been covered in major newspapers, magazines like Macleans, and in a podcast format through CJN.