Jim Marrelli eyes the small, friendly crew clad in bright green and blue T-shirts pushing two metal carts, one with a large grey YETI cooler, down Danforth Avenue on a sweltering August day.
No, he hasn’t had his yet, he tells them.
He gets off his bike, dips his hands into a pail filled with soapy water hanging off his handlebars, puts on a mask, and takes a seat on a nearby planter.
Yes, he would like to get one now.
But first he needs to know, “I’m not a sheep, am I?”
As the province tries to avoid a fourth wave and politicians debate requiring vaccines to get into venues like bars and restaurants, all eyes are fixed on the 19 per cent of eligible Ontarians who have not yet had a first dose and what it will take to change their minds.
A new mobile street team from Michael Garron Hospital and East Toronto Health Partners, is focused on what many consider the hardest part of the rollout, reaching those last people.
They started on July 30 and the plan is to alternate on Monday, Wednesday and Friday along Danforth Avenue, Queen Street East and Gerrard Street, says Shabina Rangarej, Manager of COVID-19 Vaccination Program at Michael Garron Hospital. They bring about 30 doses in a cab from the hospital to Coxwell subway station before heading out to nearby businesses, and usually reach at least 18-20 people a day.
“We came out of the gate running and that was great but now it’s slow and steady,” says Rangarej of the rollout.
“Slowly chipping away at it.”
The team which includes nurses, administrators, and at least one physician, has also been involved in mass clinics, including one where they administered 10,000 doses in one day. But while efficient, the intense pace made it “hard to feel a connection with someone,” Rangarej says.
“It can feel sterile, when they say, ‘I feel like a sheep,’ you can kind of see what they mean.”
But now that the vaccine has gone from a rare golden ticket to something they are giving away on the street, it’s time for a different approach.
The group spends about 15 minutes chatting with Marrelli, a 65-year-old window washer, and answering his questions. They want him to make an informed decision. They tell him he’s not a sheep, assure him that they’re really giving out the vaccine and say they all had theirs in January. They even listen to him talk about how much he misses his six clawed cat Mitsu, that he had to give away because he was out all day working.
Rangarej stresses to the team that they need to recognize that “people are scared” and “it’s been a very tough year for all of us.”
“Just always approach with empathy as best you can,” she tells them, “even if you don’t agree with what’s coming out of their mouths.”
The response on the street is overwhelmingly positive, although most of the people they encounter have already had both shots.
One woman tells them they’re doing a great job and says to give the vaccines to everybody, “don’t even ask ‘em.”
As they’re speaking with Marrelli, another man notices the carts and asks them how long they’ll be there, before hurrying off to bring back his wife and daughter.
Just look for the blue and green shirts, Rangarej tells him. That’s something they started during the mass clinics and have found it’s helpful during the mobile ones as well, so they look official.
They’ve also learned to go in smaller groups so that they can stay together and it doesn’t get too chaotic.
Often they’ll vaccinate a couple of people at once, says unit clerk Marta McIlroy. It gives them some “courage” when they see a friend or family member getting the shot. Some haven’t had time to get one because they’ve been working. They found one woman on Gerrard Street who couldn’t leave her house much so hadn’t been able to make it to a vaccine clinic.
After the team collects Marrelli’s information on a tablet to enter into the COVax vaccine system, and runs through necessary questions for him, he is given his first dose of the Pfizer shot by Registered Practical Nurse Ashika Nalamuthu.
Originally from Italy, he immigrated at two years old and says he’s been washing windows along the Danforth since the 1980s. He likes riding his bike because it keeps him active. But, he admits, the brakes don’t work.
He was offered the vaccine before at the nearby seniors residence where he lives, but decided to pass. There were “people sitting there in the hallways, like an institution,” he remembers.
“I don’t like feeling controlled. You tell me to do something I’m not going to do it,” he adds.
“It’s a balancing thing, you don’t know what’s real, what’s not, what’s true what’s false.”
Asked why he finally got the shot, he says it was the “convenience” that won him over, “right place, right time.”
But he also mentions he’s heard they’re needed for travel, and maybe soon to get into places like restaurants. (Quebec recently announced such a vaccine certificate plan but Ontario does not have one.)
Marrelli doesn’t have a phone or internet so Nalamuthu writes him out a paper receipt and gives him a sheet of paper with the number to call to make a second dose appointment.
She says she may well have been at his seniors vaccine clinic, and doesn’t seem surprised that it’s taken two tries to reach him, as “people change their minds.”
After he waits 15 minutes for observation, Marrelli is on his way, back washing windows. But before he heads out, he has another thought about why now.
Actually, he says, “I’m doing this for everybody else, not me. That’s what put me over the edge.”
May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: