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North of Bloor Mutual Aid has started a multilingual vaccine hotline to assist in the second-dose rollout
A week ago, a woman with a 91-year-old homebound mother called Mercedes Ferrer in hopes of securing a first-shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. The caller’s mother only spoke Spanish, doesn’t use the internet and wasn’t sure how to book.
Ferrer, who founded the community organization North of Bloor Mutual Aid last year, went to the pop-up vaccine clinic at Harbord Collegiate and explained the situation. The pop-up was able to send a doctor to the woman’s home to administer her first dose.
Helping people get vaccine appointments is personal for the community organizer in Bloor West.
“Unfortunately my dad passed away from COVID this year and he was just a few weeks away from getting his vaccine,” Ferrer explains in a phone interview. “So I thought I’d just put all my energy into contributing so that people don’t have to go through what we went through. If I can do something about getting those vaccines into people’s arms, I’m going to do that.”
Ferrer moved to Canada from Spain with her husband and son a few years ago. So when the COVID-19 pandemic sent Toronto into lockdown last spring, she knew what to expect – her family and friends back home were already going through it.
She started the neighbourhood support group North of Bloor Mutual Aid, which is one of several “neighbourhood pods” in the Davenport Mutual Aid Network. Ferrer flyered her neighbours’ mailboxes and launched a newsletter, offering to run errands, pick up groceries or just provide support to people feeling lonely and isolated.
As Ontario’s vaccination campaign has accelerated in recent weeks, she took a page from the playbook of a mutual aid group in Brooklyn and launched a community hotline to offer support for booking vaccines in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
Callers can leave a voicemail, select their language and Ferrer or one five volunteers will call back to offer to help facilitate what they need – from providing information on services to helping seniors book a shot to driving people to appointments.
“We just try to adapt to what people are needing right now,” says Ferrer, adding she had “no previous experience” doing this kind of support work prior to the pandemic.
So far, the hotline receives about two calls per day, and most callers are leaving messages in Spanish or English. She’s looking to recruit volunteers who speak Portuguese, Cantonese and Mandarin, and has put together a model for other organizations to replicate.
“When I was booking my appointment I felt like it was so confusing,” Ferrer says, explaining that she’s been using the Discord and Twitter accounts of Vaccine Hunters Canada to track down vaccine info for callers. “We’re going to be creative about solving whatever issue comes our way so we can get that person a vaccine.”
Several recent callers have been seniors who initially had second-dose appointments booked for July, but are now unsure how to rebook sooner under the accelerated rollout rules. Other callers have mobility issues and have trouble travelling to mass immunization sites.
Ferrer says she’ll rent a car if she has to drive someone to a site herself. Right now, she’s focusing on getting word out about the hotline – her flyers keep getting taken down – but even if she only receives a few calls, she’ll be happy if the hotline inspires people to check on neighbours who might need support booking a shot.
“The fact that we need Vaccine Hunters says a lot,” she says. “It’s a confusing system. There is definitely a need there because otherwise people wouldn’t be calling.”