Volunteers and doctors bring a human touch to S'pore's Covid-19 vaccination campaign

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While they were first on the list to get the Covid-19 vaccine, many seniors have yet to sign up for a jab. Volunteers such as Edmond Tan are now trying to convince seniors on the ground to get vaccinated.

SINGAPORE - It had been raining non-stop for three hours, and parts of the sheltered walkway were full of puddles. On a day like this, many might prefer to stay sheltered and warm at home.

But not 52-year-old Edmond Tan, who was going from block to block in Tiong Bahru, knocking on doors.

His mission - to check on elderly residents and, among other things, address their concerns about getting a Covid-19 jab.

Mr Tan, who is semi-retired, is one of about 14,000 volunteers from the People's Association (PA) who, along with about 1,800 PA staff, have been trying since January to engage seniors on getting the vaccine.

For the past few months, on weekends and weekdays, he has been visiting a few dozen households in Tiong Bahru estate.

Everyone who opens the door receives a friendly greeting, an inquiry about their general well-being, and some coronavirus-related advice, such as reminders to avoid nearby clusters.

"I usually don't talk about vaccination first. I'll talk about anything under the sun before finally asking them, 'Hey, how's your vaccination going, have you made an appointment yet?' - I don't want them to feel pressured," explained Mr Tan on Sunday (July 11).

His methods appear to have paid off. At every unit he visited with The Straits Times on Sunday, he was greeted with warm smiles and laughter from seniors.

"I'm very happy that someone comes to visit me," said Madam Subramaniam Vejyakumari, 69.

The retiree, who lives alone, was initially concerned about the jab because she has diabetes. However, her daughter and Mr Tan encouraged her to consult a doctor to see if she was suitable for the vaccine, and she eventually did so, getting her jab in March.

Another resident living alone in the area, 73-year-old Ho Kwan Oi, said she took a "wait and see" approach when vaccines were first offered to her age group earlier this year.

However, after Mr Tan told her that he could arrange for someone from the nearby community centre to visit her and help her register for the jab, she agreed, and was fully vaccinated by February.

Retiree Ho Kwan Oi speaks to grassroots volunteer Edmond Tan in the Tiong Bahru area on July 11, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

It also helps that Mr Tan is a familiar face, as he has been volunteering in the area for about nine years, and had already been routinely visiting seniors to check on them and see how he can help them.

"When you talk to seniors, the rapport has to be built over time," he said.

But while most residents there have been receptive and have taken their jabs, there are still some holdouts. A few said they are afraid of needles, while others cite allergies or other medical concerns, said Mr Tan, who has been unable to convince them to change their minds.

But he understands that it may take time.

"Sometimes it's not that they really don't want (the jab), they're just unsure if they can get it, but are reluctant to find out," he said, adding that doctors can play an important role in convincing seniors that the vaccines are suitable for them.

One such medical professional is Dr Hoh Sek Tien, a consultant eye surgeon from the Mount Elizabeth Novena and Gleneagles hospitals.

Last month, together with PA staff, he visited seniors in the Henderson-Dawson area who had expressed health-related concerns about vaccination, and helped to address these issues.

"What I did or said to them was not anything that had not already been published in the media. The difference was that the personalised, face-to-face approach provided that final nudge or persuasion," said Dr Hoh.

Mr Tan is one of about 14,000 volunteers from the People's Association who have been trying since January to engage seniors on getting the vaccine. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Family physicians such as Dr Dale Lim have also been helping to reassure seniors who visit their clinics.

Dr Lim, from The Tenteram Clinic in Toa Payoh, said many of his elderly patients who raised concerns about the vaccines were worried about side effects.

"Unlike the younger generation who (may) view vaccination as a norm after having received other vaccines in their lives... the elderly are probably less familiar with the purpose of vaccination and the benefits of it," he said.

He usually asks the seniors what they know about vaccination, and then addresses any misconceptions or concerns.

"Hearing it from their trusted physician does give that additional push for them to decide to go for the vaccination," he said.

Associate Professor Lim Poh Lian, who heads the Traveller's Health & Vaccination Clinic at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, has also seen her share of the concerned elderly.

Their reluctance usually stems from wanting to be cautious about new things, said Prof Lim, who is also the director of the high-level isolation unit at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

"Sometimes, they don't think they are at risk of catching Covid-19 because they mainly stay at home or just go out to get groceries. Many of them are worried because they have medical problems or feel their immune system is not strong," she said.

She added that seniors who are unable to leave their homes or have disabilities often have to wait for their children to take time off from work to take them for vaccination, an issue that mobile vaccination teams can help with.

This was the case last week when a doctor raised the case of a blind elderly patient who could not get to a vaccination centre on her own. Prof Lim suggested she be referred to one of the mobile teams.

"Often, people are not aware of the resources put in place, so getting that information out is important," she said.

And while efforts are ramped up to reach unvaccinated seniors, there is also a need to vaccinate those surrounding them, such as caregivers, children and grandchildren, said Prof Lim.

She said: "Our seniors are the group most vulnerable to Covid-19 complications, and we need to do everything we can to get them protected."

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