As It Happens

This pharmacist travels New Mexico in a minivan to bring vaccines to remote corners

Uri Bassan believes so deeply in getting people in his state of New Mexico vaccinated that he has converted his family van into a mobile vaccination clinic. "We're going to go to schools, churches, gymnasiums. We're at restaurants. Wherever we can find people that are willing to take the vaccine," he says.

Uri Bassan says he feels a 'sense of duty' to make sure everyone can get inoculated against COVID-19

Uri Bassan has been criss-crossing New Mexico in his minivan to vaccinate residents against COVID-19. (Submitted by Uri Bassan)

Story Transcript

Uri Bassan believes so deeply in getting people in New Mexico vaccinated that he has converted his family van into a mobile vaccination clinic.

He and his team have been criss-crossing the state, holding clinics and helping reach people in rural and remote areas.

He's given people the jab in RV parks, arenas, elementary schools and parking lots. In one instance, he ordered pizza to a clinic in Santa Fe and made sure the pizza delivery person got a shot before leaving.

He told the New York Times he estimates he and his team have given nearly 42,000 shots and racked up over 30,000 kilometres of travel.

Since the state approved vaccination for children ages five to 11 at the start of November, Bassan will continue to be busy. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Uri, what would we see if we looked inside this van of yours?

I've gotten organized recently, so I purchased lots of clear plastic totes from the hardware store and I have them all clearly labelled now.

So everything now in there is stacked very neatly, and you find all the pandemic administration supplies needed in order to run a pop-up vaccination clinic. So clipboards and pens. And the most important item of all is my portable refrigerator that plugs into the cigarette lighter of the van.

Bassan, centre in blue, with vaccine clinic volunteers in Mora, N.M. He helped run a clinic at the Mora Inn & RV Park, owned by Kristy Wolf, second from right. (Submitted by Uri Bassan)

Is that for the vaccines, or is that for some refreshments?

It is for the vaccine. We want to keep it exactly at the right temperature of 40 F, so we plug it in. It has a space of honour on the passenger seat in the front of the van, and once we get to the clinic, we then plug it into the wall of the building of the clinic that we're at.

You and your team have already put on a lot of miles, 19,000 miles around New Mexico, vaccinating people. What made you want to load up the family van and do it all again?

I got vaccinated early on because I'm a health-care provider, and as soon as I got that shot, I had a feeling of a sense of relief. And then I immediately was overcome with a sense of guilt because I didn't feel that I deserved to be one of the ones to get vaccinated early on. I'm not older. I don't have a lot of high-risk underlying conditions, and I just thought it was unfair.

I then just felt this sense of duty to go out and reach all the people who are at high risk and vaccinate them as quickly as possible. And so I partnered with the Department of Aging and Long-Term Care Services. They're in charge of nursing homes and senior centres in New Mexico. And we wanted to ensure the equitable distribution of the vaccine because there was lots of mass vaccination centres in the big urban centre of Albuquerque, New Mexico. But there was nothing in the outlying areas, and very rural and frontier towns of New Mexico.

A pizza delivery person, who dropped off pizzas Bassan had ordered for volunteers at a vaccination clinic in Santa Fe, N.M, gets a COVID-19 vaccine on May 21, 2021. Bassan said the delivery person told him he didn't have time to get vaccinated, so Bassan made sure he got a shot. (Submitted by Uri Bassan)

Now you have been taking your mobile clinic, your vaccination clinic, to some very remote places, some pretty strange places, too. Can you give us a sense of some of the more unusual places you have ended up setting up shop?

One of the more unusual ones was on the border with Mexico, where there is a town. It's called Columbus on our side of the fence, and on the other side of the fence, it's called [Puerto Palomas]. And we set up in the fire station.

We focus not just on the local residents of Columbus, but we invited those [from Puerto Palomas] to attend as well. And we vaccinated a lot of migrants and a lot of farmworkers.

That was very unusual, being in a fire station like that. So where the fire truck normally [is] planted, we did a drive-through and we had vans coming through, full with a dozen people inside, all getting vaccinated at once. And so that was a really good feeling to reach out to that underserved community.

We're going to go to schools, churches, gymnasiums. We're at restaurants. Wherever we can find people that are willing to take the vaccine.- Uri Bassan, pharmacist 

I understand you [also] set up one in your own backyard. 

I did, when they lowered the age to 12. I have four children and all of them are around 12 and under, so we reached out to our neighbours and they all had a high level of excitement.

It was a Saturday and they came over in the morning and we had a line at the front door, as they were going into the backyard one at a time and getting vaccinated and then recovering for 15 minutes in the backyard. And it felt so good to vaccinate not only my own family, but also the neighbouring children.

Uri Bassan, centre, with members of the U.S. National Guard at a mass vaccination clinic at Tingly Coliseum in Albuquerque, N.M. (Submitted by Uri Bassan)

What else have you been doing to get children vaccinated?

We've partnered with Albuquerque Public Schools. It's the largest school district in our area, 100,000 students. And the school district, also to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines, sends me to a different elementary school every single weekday.

We go from the very different ends of town. We have a lot of Spanish-speaking [people] that live, [with] multi-generations and small living conditions. They're in service industry-type jobs, oftentimes. And so these are very high-risk people because, you know, the grandparents watch ... the grandkids while their children are at work.

So if we protect the grandparents by vaccinating the children, it's very important and it really ... [reaches] those who are at higher risk for severe disease. 

And right now, every elementary school we go to, we're giving 600, 700, 800 shots at a time. We're in a four- [or] five-hour period. And so it's been an incredible outpouring. It's right now a little bit overwhelming, but it's such a great sense of satisfaction to know that we're reaching so many people and doing so much good in our area.

How much longer do you think you will be driving around in the family van giving these vaccinations?

I'm going to keep doing this for as long as people are willing to take a shot.

We're going to go to schools, churches, gymnasiums. We're at restaurants. Wherever we can find people that are willing to take the vaccine. We're going to set up shop and we're going to make it as convenient and as easy for them to get vaccinated, because that's what people want.


Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview produced by Kate McGillivray.

Corrections

  • In an earlier version of this story, Uri Bassan says he and his team vaccinated residents of Las Palomas, Mexico. In fact, they vaccinated residents of Puerto Palomas, which borders Columbus, New Mexico.
    Nov 29, 2021 12:51 PM ET

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