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#BehindTheVaccine – Meet the strategy and operations team at Michael Garron Hospital and East Toronto Health Partners
#BehindTheVaccine tells the stories of Michael Garron Hospital’s (MGH) and East Toronto Health Partners’ (ETHP) COVID-19 vaccine team, a group of dedicated staff, physicians and healthcare leaders who have administered more than 600,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to East Toronto residents since December 2020. Meet the strategy and operations team.
Being part of the largest immunization campaign in history requires more than running vaccine clinics. It means understanding the challenges different groups face in getting vaccinated; following the science and local data; exploring new and innovative approaches to vaccination; and advocating for our community when they need us most.
Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) realized the importance of these elements early on in its COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Since December 2020, it’s worked closely with its Ontario Health Team (OHT), East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP), and other community partners to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are delivered to local residents in a manner that is as safe, low-barrier and hyperlocal as possible.
This work is led by the strategy and operations team at MGH, a group of healthcare leaders who are responsible for overseeing the planning of thousands of vaccine clinics – both fixed and mobile – across East Toronto. This group collaborates closely with the clinic, mobile and pharmacy teams and oversees upwards of 350 staff, including booking, registration, screeners, security, information technology (IT), project managers, analysts, communications, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, volunteers and more.
“It takes more than one person; it takes a team,” says Wolf Klassen, Vice President, Program Support at MGH. “Early on, we were pivoting our strategy almost every day according to the changing provincial guidelines, vaccine supply and what made the most sense for our communities. The team would work overnight and weekends to shift operations and logistics. It’s truly been a Herculean effort.”
Below, meet some members of MGH and ETHP’s vaccine strategy and operations team, which includes leaders from areas like infection prevention and control, IT, operational excellence, communications and more.
Vice President, Program Support, Michael Garron Hospital
As the executive lead of MGH and ETHP’s vaccine rollout in East Toronto, Klassen is responsible for keeping the hospital, Board of Directors and other key stakeholders abreast of the ongoing and quickly evolving vaccine efforts in East Toronto. This involves leading and participating in planning meetings, including those at the provincial level, to ensure updates are disseminated and acted upon in a timely manner.
Early on in the vaccine rollout, it also involved advocating for some of East Toronto’s hardest hit communities. This led to the launch of dedicated clinics for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and partnering with the City of Toronto to open a mass COVID-19 immunization clinic in Thorncliffe Park, which has helped local residents get vaccinated in a place close to home. “We’ve done all this in partnership with our local community agencies, primary care providers and infection prevention and control team,” Klassen says.
Klassen calls the work “one of the most rewarding assignments” he’s had in his 25-plus years at MGH. “We know this is a very effective vaccine and that getting shots into arms is going to result in improved health outcomes for people. That’s what drives us,” he says.
He says he’s especially proud of the 10,000-dose clinic that the MGH and ETHP team spearheaded at the Thorncliffe Park clinic in May 2020. That record-setting clinic would serve as a blueprint for the historic, 25,000-plus-dose day that took place at Scotiabank Arena a month later. “We’ve made COVID-19 vaccinations a priority alongside our partners,” Klassen says.
Dr. Jeff Powis
Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Control, Michael Garron Hospital
As a frontline physician specializing in infectious diseases, Dr. Powis has seen the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand, including its effects on vulnerable communities in East Toronto. This has motivated him to advocate for an equity-driven mobile strategy where MGH and ETHP make vaccines as easy and convenient to access as possible in locations like apartment building lobbies, grocery stores and mosques. He’s also played a large role in answering questions about the vaccine from different groups, including long-term care and retirement home staff, first responders, healthcare workers and local residents.
“Things changed very quickly day-to-day when vaccines first became available,” Dr. Powis says. “We learned early on that we had to pivot and be flexible, and that we had to consider the needs of our community so no eligible individual was left behind.”
In addition to equity and data, MGH and ETHP’s vaccine rollout is rooted in a quality improvement approach. Dr. Powis says this has been key in the team’s ability to act and scale up quickly during an unprecedented vaccination campaign. “When something hasn’t been done before, you can either plan, plan, plan and try to hit a homerun on your first try or you can hit some singles, improve your batting and work toward a homerun,” he says. “We chose the latter method. We huddled, measured and adapted iteratively until we were able to deliver more than 25,000 doses in one day efficiently. And we continue to huddle, measure and adapt.”
“This is our way to demonstrate that we’re here for our community, for East Toronto,” Dr. Powis adds. “There have been times during this vaccine rollout that have been challenging and very difficult. But we’ve kept our vision and principles in mind and, as a team, we’ve been able to continuously push forward.”
Director, Emergency and Critical Care, Transitional Care and Clinical Strategy, Michael Garron Hospital
Director, Quality, Operational Excellence and Innovation, Michael Garron Hospital
Edmonson and Bourne helped helm MGH and ETHP’s vaccine strategy from December 2020 to June 2021. Along with Denny Petkovski, Director, Special Projects and Volunteer Services; Phillip Anthony, Manager, Mobile Vaccination Strategy for East Toronto; and Shabina Rangarej, Manager, Vaccine Clinics, they helped guide the organization and coordination of clinic and mobile vaccine operations, including logistics, staffing, booking, analytics and more.
“We’ve always taken the approach of ‘how do we support our communities that need vaccines most?’” Edmonson says. “As eligibility broadened to include additional populations, the question then became ‘how can we best work with our local community organizations – people who know their neighbourhoods and residents best – to get vaccines into arms?’” Bourne adds.
Like other members of the vaccine team, Edmonson’s and Bourne’s work also involved advocating for communities in East Toronto that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 to ensure they had easy access to vaccines. This eventually led MGH and ETHP to be formally included in region-wide initiatives like the Toronto Sprint Strategy, which provided access to vaccines in neighbourhoods with high incidence of COVID-19, low vaccine coverage and where the Delta variant had been identified during spring and summer 2021.
“My focus at MGH is in the Emergency Department, where we have seen the impacts of COVID-19 on our patients, community and healthcare system,” Edmonson says. “Joining the vaccine team was an opportunity to be part of the solution and hopefully the beginning of the end of this pandemic.”
“There was so much public demand for vaccines,” Bourne adds. “We wanted to ensure that, as a team, we were responding quickly and supporting our community when they needed us most.”
Both say their involvement in the vaccine campaign compares to nothing they’ve experienced in their careers so far. The stories they’ve heard from local residents about the difference vaccines are making continue to stick with them. “People have been so incredibly thankful,” Edmonson says.
Director, Special Projects and Volunteer Services, Michael Garron Hospital
In addition to his existing duties directing volunteer services, redevelopment-related projects and other areas of MGH, Petkovski began supporting the vaccine strategy and operations team in summer 2021.
A typical workday for him includes supporting logistics, staffing, booking and analytics; managing supply and patient volumes; negotiating with local landlords to secure COVID-19 vaccine and testing spaces; working with partners and local politicians to identify priority neighbourhoods that need easy, convenient access to vaccines; and assisting on-site at clinics when needed.
“There was a period of four to five months where we would review vaccine updates every hour from up to 10 different clinics,” Petkovski says. “The team has been working around the clock for the better part of the last year. It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort.”
Though the work hasn’t been without its challenges, including periods where vaccine demand outstripped supply, Petkovski describes the assignment as not just career-defining, but “life-defining.” “Everyone on the team is working toward a common goal: to protect our community,” he says. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be part of something like this. As healthcare professionals, we’re answering the call to help.”
Petkovski says he is in awe of his colleagues, many of whom have been recognized as leaders across the healthcare system during the vaccination campaign. “This is a really proud moment for MGH and our partners. Together, we’ve been able to look after the east end and beyond. The support we’ve received from the community has been incredibly uplifting.”
Chief Information Officer, Michael Garron Hospital
Hoyt leads a team of IT professionals, including switchboard operators, technical support staff and helpdesk and system analysts. They have been integral in developing MGH’s vaccine appointment-booking system, directing the general public to sources where they can access vaccine-related information and building the IT infrastructure needed to help clinics run smoothly and efficiently.
This involves ensuring devices like iPads, computers, printers and phones – as well as stable Internet and phone connections – are available at all of MGH and ETHP’s vaccine clinics, including mobile and “pop-up” clinics that take place in locations like parks and plazas. The team also helped establish MGH’s physical vaccine booking office and phone line, where staff answer a high volume of calls and e-mails to assist the public with booking vaccine appointments in East Toronto.
“I’m really proud of everything this team and organization has been able to accomplish, especially given how much we’ve had to pivot over the past year,” Hoyt says.
As Chief Information Officer, Hoyt also spearheaded the development and launch of the Toronto COVID-19 vaccine call centre and website in March 2021. The centralized system allowed eligible Toronto residents to pre-register or book vaccine appointments through various hospitals and Ontario Health Teams across the region, helping to alleviate the high number of calls that many hospitals were receiving at that time.
“When vaccines first became available to the general public in 2021, the MGH phone line was being inundated to the point that it was presenting a risk to patients because people could not reach us for urgent needs,” Hoyt says. “I spoke to my peer CIOs at hospitals across the city and soon realized this was an issue we were all experiencing. The centralized call centre and website we set up and operated from March to June 2021 helped significantly with this issue, while ensuring eligible individuals were able to access vaccines in a timely manner.”
Hoyt says she’s thankful for MGH’s deep relationships with community agencies through ETHP, as well as with other hospitals and healthcare organizations. “We couldn’t have done this without the connections we had already established prior to the pandemic.”
Director, Corporate Communications and Partnerships, Michael Garron Hospital
Darling oversaw communications and engagement plans informed by partners and community stakeholders as part of MGH and ETHP’s COVID-19 vaccine campaign from December 2020 to January 2022. During this time, she participated in vaccine-related meetings on a regional and provincial level and provided strategic counsel to MGH and ETHP’s vaccine team leads, ensuring that information around vaccines, eligibility criteria, appointment availability and clinics were communicated in a clear, timely and transparent manner to the general public and health system partners.
Darling also played a role in community and government relations, facilitating regular connections with local community agencies and elected officials to keep them updated on MGH and ETHP’s work while providing a forum for feedback and empowering them with the materials needed to help encourage vaccinations. In addition, she led a group of staff, physicians and community members from across organizations who met regularly to identify barriers to vaccination in East Toronto and develop strategies for building vaccine confidence.
These meetings resulted in strategies like a vaccine confidence poster campaign, which shared images of trusted local figures getting their first and second dose. “There was a lot of thought that went into that campaign, from the language that emphasizes that getting vaccinated is a positive choice – one that benefits not just you, but others – to the images of people with their friends and family that encourages an emotional connection.”
Moments that stand out to Darling from her time with the vaccine team include helping to lead communications for the record-breaking clinics in Thorncliffe Park and at Scotiabank Arena. “Our communications team has been a well-oiled machine,” she says. “The vaccine work moves incredibly quickly and we’ve been able to stay on top of it all, from updating our website and social media to responding to inquiries from the media, partners and the general public. Our community has really appreciated the local response.”
Project Manager, School Outreach Team and COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy, Michael Garron Hospital
As Project Manager for MGH and ETHP’s vaccine work from January 2021 to 2022, Chow was often the glue that brought together the many diverse disciplines and highly skilled professionals within the vaccine team. During this time, she was in daily contact with the team’s leads, as well as clinic and booking staff, pharmacy, communications, IT, analytics, security, school outreach team and others. She was involved in everything from strategy and planning to day-to-day decision making.
“I was probably in contact with at least four different teams using at least four different communications platforms at any given time,” she says.
Much of Chow’s work involved problem solving and mitigating risks related to vaccine administration. She says she felt immediately connected to the work when she started her role despite the challenges brought by the rapid and unpredictable pace of the pandemic. “This has highlighted how quickly our healthcare system can implement an initiative when it’s well supported and funded,” she says. “I hope the success of our vaccine rollout can be used as an example for other initiatives down the road.”
Chow says she is especially proud of the series of “sit-and-stay” clinics that MGH and ETHP organized in early 2021. These clinics were designed for local seniors and enabled them to stay in one place for their registration, vaccination and observation periods. “I was able to be on-site at the clinic during its launch and that moment just stands out to me,” she says. “We got such a great response from the community. There were so many patients there who were so happy – they were coming up to me, to staff and thanking everyone.”
Chow has been committed to the COVID-19 vaccine work because it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “help us get to a new normal.” Although she has now transitioned to a project management role in MGH’s IT and redevelopment departments – a move she describes as “bittersweet” – she commends MGH and ETHP’s trust in its staff and leaders and their willingness to pilot new approaches when it comes to administering vaccines. “It’s our team and relationship with our community that has made this work so well.”
COVID-19 Vaccine Booking Office Coordinator, Michael Garron Hospital
Vittas began her career at MGH as a registration clerk in the hospital’s vaccine clinic in January 2021, which, at the time, was only open to local long-term care home staff and eligible healthcare workers. She remembers being impressed by the hospital’s vaccination work as early as then. “I find it fascinating how a small team of people brought together under extraordinary circumstances have been able to do what they have done. The task was enormous!” Vittas says.
Soon after joining the clinic team, Vittas transitioned to a position in MGH’s COVID-19 vaccine booking office, which helps local residents book appointments at MGH and ETHP’s clinics. She later took on a leadership role by becoming coordinator. In this position, she has been able to tap into her 20-plus years of project-management and marketing experience to ensure the booking office is running as efficiently as possible. This involves working with the team to coordinate vaccine appointments for all eligible groups; ensuring appointments are available at the appropriate clinics and through the right booking system; overseeing booking office staff to ensure eligibility and clinic information is updated and shared in a timely manner; and collaborating with communications to execute e-mail and text-message strategies to ensure people have the answers they need to get vaccinated.
“The goal is to inform community members of important information about vaccines, including appointment availability, eligibility criteria and facts and data that help address vaccine hesitancy,” Vittas says. “Many times, these initiatives have resulted in positive community responses on social media and an immediate increase in vaccine appointments.”
Vittas has also played a major role in coordinating the vaccine team’s homebound campaign, which sees physicians and nurses delivering vaccines to vulnerable individuals at home. This has involved developing a system that allows staff to efficiently visit homebound individuals by neighbourhood. “There were hundreds of people requesting homebound appointments at one point,” Vittas says. “We would get calls from people who were so emotional. Many of them were seniors and wanted so badly to be vaccinated. It’s a nice part of the job when you can make those positive phone calls to let people know you’re coming to vaccinate them. The joy and gratitude from these people has been so heartwarming and makes it all worth it. It gives them hope and lets them know they are not alone.”
Vittas has now transitioned to a new role on MGH and ETHP’s vaccine team: Project Manager, School Outreach Team and COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy. She plans to support the work as long as MGH and ETHP are doing it. “The team is so amazing; everyone pulls together to make things happen,” she says. “I’m grateful to a part of this incredible work.”
Improvement Analyst, Operational Excellence and Sustainability, Michael Garron Hospital
Elashry began his work on the vaccine team only a few months after graduating from the University of Toronto’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. He was one of the first improvement analysts to work on MGH and ETHP’s COVID-19 immunization strategy, supporting with everything from project management and data analysis to designing, building and improving systems and processes to facilitate the safe and efficient administration of vaccines. “It has been absolutely mind-blowing to be part of this project,” Elashry says.
The unprecedented nature of a vaccine campaign of this size and magnitude meant Elashry often worked closely with project managers, IT specialists and other MGH improvement analysts like Caleb McNevin and Aidan Messom to “build processes from scratch.” This included appointment-booking systems and methods for capturing, measuring and sharing data around clinics, appointment times and doses administered.
The work also involved supporting MGH and ETHP’s mobile vaccination team, which has been deployed to long-term care homes, retirement homes and other congregate sites during the vaccine rollout.
“There were many early mornings and late nights of problem solving and crunching numbers, including for our massive Scotiabank Arena clinic,” Elashry says. “I’ve loved every second of it.”
Although Elashry’s work has now shifted to overseeing the MGH Clinical Assessment Centre and ETHP’s COVID-19 Outreach Centres, he looks back fondly on his time with the vaccine team – and what kept him motivated during those initial months. “I thought about being able to have dinner with my family, celebrating my mom’s birthday, playing spike ball with friends,” he says. "Those moments – those semblances of normalcy – are what vaccines will help us get back to."