Cambridge's Dr. Sharon Bal on role of family physicians in COVID-19 vaccine rollout
Family doctors have 'always been embedded in the vaccine response' in region
Family doctors are fielding questions left, right and center about the pandemic and now the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Sharon Bal is a family physician in Cambridge. She's also the primary care physician lead for the region's vaccine rollout task force.
She joined Craig Norris, host of CBC K-W's The Morning Edition, to talk about what the past year has been like and what role she expects family physicians will play in the vaccine rollout in the weeks and months to come.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Craig Norris: What has this past year been like for you as a family physician dealing with the pandemic?
Dr. Sharon Bal: The last year has been a roller coaster, just like it's been for our patients. It's been similar really in our offices for primary care.
You can remember at the beginning that the first wave in the spring, the anxieties and uncertainties that patients were feeling around COVID were pretty much mirroring our own uncertainties as we were dealing with sort of this novel coronavirus. And so we were dealing with questions that ourselves, we didn't have often the answers to.
As time progressed, questions changed, as you can imagine, and our confidence changed as we got to know more about the virus. We set up assessment centers, primary care with hospitals, we worked in long term care homes during outbreaks, we did mobile testing teams.
In the fall, certainly we got questions around school from parents who had concerns about symptoms and how to navigate them toward testing. And I would say, you know, increasingly more and more anxiety, more mental health, is really what we're fielding with almost every appointment, I think, in primary care.
What's been nice about the vaccine, but there's been two types of questions. One has been around, of course, the efficacy of the vaccines and increasingly questions like when is it, my turn as you start seeing much more excitement around that?
Norris: And do you have any answers for those vaccine questions?
Bal: So with respect to communication, for example, we feel much more confident about letting people know that they will get notified that, for example, with the patients 80 and over, there will be lots and lots of channels by which they'll get that information from the task force and the media, but also from primary care.
For the 80 and over, as an example, we sent ... communications to our patients, letting them know that we would give them more information. And in fact, when the preregistration link came out, many Region of Waterloo primary care of family physicians and nurse practitioners were aware of that and able to send that link out. And actually, there are many of us in our offices, including mine, where we actually help to complete that preregistration link as an example.
Norris: There is some confusion on what role the province expects family physicians to be playing in the vaccine rollout. But what is your understanding now of how doctors will fit into the local public health plan that's even being developed here in the region?
Bal: There certainly is a lot of uncertainty, I think, especially with the announcement about a week and a half ago now by the premier and [retired] general [Rick] Hillier [chair of Ontario's COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force] that did catch some of us off guard.
I think what's been lovely in the Region of Waterloo has been that we've always been embedded in the vaccine response and so we have been playing a role in the Grand River Hospital clinic as immunizers is there, as part of the mobile teams that have gone out to long term care homes and retirement homes.
We will be part of the mass immunization clinics that are run by public health and we will be standing up family medicine based clinics.
And in the meantime, because those are going to be larger team based offices, primary care's role will be, as always, navigating that journey of being available to patients to answer their questions, ease their anxieties and help them traverse the systems.
Norris: So for the most part, doctors offices won't be used as vaccination centers?
Bal: I think certainly with the Pfizer product, because of its requirements, it would be challenging to have the amount of vaccine, particularly with the properties of Pfizer, out to all primary care offices.
We will, however, be having some offices, team based offices actually in the next several weeks going up, which will be able to provide Pfizer. And when we get more plentiful, transportable fridge, stable vaccine, it will be coming to primary carers and pharmacies just like normal.
Norris: What reassurance could you give to people here who worry? I mean, we look over and we see it, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph, they're pre-registering people 70 and older in the next week or two.
Bal: We in the region of Waterloo also had a pre-registration piece and I think that has been valuable in terms of people knowing that they're not going to be forgotten.
We will be turning to each priority population in the same way. All [public health units] are different, so, as you know, for example, they may have different numbers of long-term care homes versus retirement homes and different populations.
And so the implementation at the local level, I think, reflects really how much vaccine you have and what your priority populations look like.
Norris: What is the one thing that you need people to know right now?
Bal: I really hope that they have a sense of assurance and confidence in the vaccine rollout here in the region, to know that if they have questions or uncertainties, there's lots of different ways of finding out information from the task force web page and from primary care.
And we are so heartened to see our 80-plus patients going in and getting vaccinated. The Region of Waterloo had on its website a lovely picture of a community member … who is 101, Craig, and she went in for her vaccine on Saturday at Grand River [Hospital] with a blinged out cane and a sparkling personality. And it's those types of things, I think, that are going to be the winds behind our sails for the next few months.
Listen to the full interview: