Michael Hatt eases the ambulance into the driveway and slowly reverses up to the house, the beeping sound of the vehicle’s backup alarm drawing curious looks from neighbours.
There’s no medical emergency happening, however. He’s just delivering a flu shot.
Mr. Hatt, a pharmacist in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., has been inoculating residents around Cape Breton this way for months after buying an old ambulance on Kijiji and converting it into a mobile clinic. In rural communities where basic medical services are often a long distance away, his big, white truck has become a popular option for the elderly and people with mobility issues.
This past week, he started using the ambulance to administer COVID-19 vaccines in the parking lot of his Medicine Shoppe pharmacy, so people could receive their shots without having to go indoors. Mr. Hatt registers patients in a trailer he set up, then directs them to the ambulance – lights flashing – for their needle.
The pharmacist plans to take his coronavirus vaccination clinic on the road soon, to reach people unable to drive to get their COVID-19 shot.
“Every day, we’re getting more and more calls from people asking us to come to their home. There are a lot of people who are housebound,” he said. “When things die down a bit, we’re going to hit the road and get those people who were left behind.”
The mobile clinic is a novel idea in Cape Breton’s sparsely populated regions, where even pharmacies can be hard to find and many elderly people live alone. Mr. Hatt sees the potential to offer other medical services as well, including treating minor ailments such as urinary tract infections, conducting blood tests, renewing prescriptions or performing mental health check-ups.
For now, Mr. Hatt and his staff are focused on getting as many coronavirus vaccines in as many arms as possible. Nova Scotia’s vaccine campaign, plagued by technical glitches on the website for registering patients, lags the rest of the country, with 106,623 total doses administered as of Thursday. Less than five per cent of the population has received at least one dose.
By May, the province expects to be able to vaccinate 86,000 people a week.
“There were a few hiccups to get started. But pretty soon, we’re going to be going as fast and hard as we can,” Mr. Hatt said.
Nova Scotia is relying on doctors’ offices and pharmacists to administer most of the doses, with 290 pharmacies to begin offering them later this month. While some communities have offered free public transit to pharmacies to get the shot, Mr. Hatt is the only pharmacist in the province delivering doses straight to people’s doors, for a $15 fee.
He came up with the idea as part of a Memorial University project looking at how pharmacists can improve the ways they help patients in rural areas. He saw an online ad for the 16-year-old decommissioned Ford Econoline ambulance, being sold privately, and found a mechanic willing to help him get it road-ready again.
After some electrical work, new tires and brakes, he began driving it in October, often setting up shop outside fire halls or community centres in places where no one else was offering the flu shot.
“The thought of this used-ambulance idea popped into my head when I saw that ad,” he said. “First I had to break it to my family that I’d bought an old ambulance, and they thought I’d lost my mind. ... Now I’m getting calls from places an hour and a half away.”
Tom Haldiman Sr., a 92-year-old who lives in Port Hawkesbury, had a flu shot delivered to his house by Mr. Hatt recently. The former paper mill worker uses a walker, and finds it difficult to get out to see his doctor.
“I’d never heard of this before,” he said, after getting a needle in his living room. “It’s a great service, and they should have had it years ago.”
Because of COVID-19, the Nova Scotia government is making changes to the way pharmacists can provide services. They can now be reimbursed for hiring nurses to administer vaccines, enabling them to expand their efforts.
Mr. Hatt’s mobile clinic provides a sanitized space with medical equipment to monitor patients and treat them in case of an adverse reaction. It’s making people unusually happy to see an ambulance pull up to their house.
“I can remember when doctors made house calls,” said Ilana Hardiman, Mr. Haldiman’s daughter-in-law. “But this is a very novel idea for nowadays.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.