Retired doctors in Finland vaccinate thousands against COVID-19

Both Virpi and Matti have experience managing vaccination campaigns. During the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 (also known as swine flu), they oversaw the inoculation of nearly 1,000 health care workers prior to the mass vaccination of the general population.

“We have been retired for some years, but we still know how to vaccinate people,” says Virpi.

Eager vaccinators

By the end of April, the Honkalas had vaccinated more than 5,000 people in Raahe and two smaller municipalities nearby — accounting for about half of the vaccinations in their region, by Virpi’s estimate.

In these three communities, about a quarter of the people, including almost all of those 75 and older, have received a first dose of the vaccine. People 60 and older were able to make appointments as of May.

“Two eager vaccinators can do quite a lot,” Matti says.

People have been excited and feel relieved about the vaccine rollout. “They are happy,” Virpi says. “And they are so grateful.”

Virpi was keen to get their Rotary clubs involved in the effort, and Matti wanted to promote the importance of vaccines.

“We said, this could be our Rotary project, and our project for our community,” Virpi says. “We know how eager Rotary members are to promote vaccinations, whether it’s against COVID-19 or polio.”

Members of both Rotary clubs volunteered to act as ushers and park cars at vaccination sites. Rotary club members played a crucial role directing people in and out of a closed school that was converted to a vaccination center. Virpi says staff members were thrilled to have the help, because the school layout was more complicated than the setup at other vaccine locations.

Vaccination strategy

Finland’s ministry of health sets the country’s vaccination strategy. The Pfizer vaccine, the first that became available in Finland, has to be kept at around -70°C (-94°F), so a cold chain must be maintained for doses to remain effective.

Vaccine doses are packed in large containers filled with dry ice and flown from a pharmaceutical factory to Helsinki, Finland’s capital. The doses are then distributed to regions according to their population and their needs. Each region’s medical director and nursing staff schedule vaccination appointments as doses become available, and university hospitals distribute vaccine batches to municipalities. The vaccines for the Raahe region come from a university hospital about 75 km (47 miles) away.

In early January, the Honkalas were vaccinating mostly front-line health care workers. Then in February, they assisted with vaccinations in nursing homes and retirement communities. As supplies increased, the Honkalas began providing vaccinations several days a week, including at the hospital in Raahe and at smaller clinics in the two neighboring towns.

“At first we had only shorter days,” Virpi says. “The nurses in charge of scheduling set up one appointment every 10 minutes. I think they thought because of our age, we would be slow. I have never spent so much time walking corridors! Then, they realized we could do more and increased the pace to two every five minutes.”