Over the last several months, community centres, sports facilities and event spaces all over the Lower Mainland have been transformed into COVID-19 vaccine clinics. To run smoothly, these clinics need dedicated health care workers, plenty of medical supplies and…lots of laptops and printers.
Computer hardware might not be the first thing you think of when you imagine a vaccination clinic, but having devices up and running and connected to Wi-Fi is a key part of B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination plan. Whenever someone receives a vaccine at a clinic, staff record it in ImmsBC, the province’s digital vaccine solution. This system allows public health officials to track how many people have been vaccinated and where and prompts people to book a second dose appointment when they’re eligible.
In February 2021, project manager Kris Gapes, technical lead Jason Choi and their teams of technical project managers, device subject matter experts and network specialists were tasked with setting up the hardware up at 28 vaccine clinics across Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH). The teams were also supported by leaders Ed Mou and Giovanna D’Angelo.
In a matter of weeks, they would have to help turn empty spaces into fully functioning clinics where health care workers could get shots in arms without being interrupted by technical glitches.
PHSA’s Information Management/Information Technology Services (IMITS) teams are a critical part of the health care system, but their work often takes place out of public view. With millions of British Columbians eagerly awaiting their vaccine appointments, the work Kris, Jason and their colleagues were doing had a higher than usual profile.
“I’m not going to lie, the idea of working on a project where issues could make the nightly news was a little daunting but immensely exciting,” Kris says.
“The introduction of the ImmsBC vaccination solution is a potential game changer for the way we administer mass vaccines,” explains Dr. Eric Grafstein, Chief Medical Information Officer for VCH and Providence Health Care (PHC) and Regional Emergency Department Head, VCH and PHC. In his role, Eric helped Lorraine Blackburn, Vice President of Professional Practice and Chief Clinical Information Officer at VCH co-lead the digital side of the vaccine clinic roll out.
ImmsBC, which was developed by a team that included staff from IMITS and the Ministry of Health, is actually four tools in one: registration, appointment booking, in-clinic immunization data entry, and a link to the provincial immunization registry, a central database with a record of all the COVID-19 vaccines given in the province.
Once ImmsBC was fully launched at the beginning of April, it was critical that all clinic sites have access to it to ensure health care workers could see patient appointments and enter information about vaccine doses, creating an important record for both patients and public health officials.
“Technology is really the spine or nervous system of the clinic. Without it working properly, the clinics cannot work efficiently,” Eric explains. “This is especially true now that we are seeing upwards of 3,500 people a day in some of our largest clinics like the Vancouver Convention Centre.”
One of the first and biggest challenges Kris and his colleagues identified was getting sites hooked up to the secure health authority computer network. Many sites didn’t have the IT infrastructure in place to allow for this, so the network core team created a solution called “site-in-a-box.” This is quite literally a box that can be rolled into a clinic site and provide a stable network connection once it’s hooked up to power. The box works as long as the site has an internet feed or cellular coverage – even if the clinic is a converted parking lot.
Beyond solving connectivity issues, the teams often faced an even more basic problem: finding a free outlet. Many clinic sites are in spaces meant for sports and recreation – some are even in empty ice rinks – and they weren’t designed to accommodate dozens of computer workstations.
“These are big open community spaces, and you need to lay cables everywhere and ensure that no one is going to trip,” Kris says. “With the amount of devices deployed to the sites we also had to ensure we were not going to overload the electrical circuits.”
With clinics being built in so many diverse spaces, every site had its own unique hurdles, but Kerrisdale Community Centre stands out to Kris as the most challenging.
The technical teams gained access to the site on Thursday for Monday start date. For safety reasons, the site also had tight restrictions on the type of cabling equipment that could be used.
“For some sites, we utilized external vendors or facilities teams to do the cabling and electrical work,” Kris says. “For Kerrisdale the project team had to dust off their masking tape, amateur wiring skills, and creaky knees to do the electrical fit out over the weekend.”
Although it was a tall order, people from a number of different teams pitched in to help set up more than one hundred devices so the site would be ready for the first patients on Monday morning.
“We couldn’t have done it without our support from our vendor NTT, the Future Workspace Device team, and Technology Services Management,” says Kris. “The fact the clinic opening went smoothly gave the team a lot of confidence on what could be achieved in such a small amount of time.”
“There were so many different groups who worked tirelessly to make the clinic rollouts a success,” Eric says. “The implementation teams for clinic setup, vaccine administration, and inventory management from VCH and the technical teams from IMITS all did extraordinary work under tight timelines and other challenges.”
Kris also notes that getting the clinic sites up and running was a massive undertaking that was made possible through the hard work and dedication of staff in many different areas across the health authorities.
“As soon a you mentioned vaccine clinics everyone just dropped everything to help instantly,” Kris says. “This wasn’t because they had to. It really came across that everyone wanted to help just because they understood how important this was for the community.”
In addition to Eric, Lorraine Blackburn and their teams, Kris and his colleagues worked with Shelly Fleck, Lorrie Norvell, Megan Stowe, and Andrew Tung on the clinical side of the set up. They also had help from many teams within IMITS including, Enterprise Architecture, the Emerging Technology team, the Primary Care & Community team and VCH Clinical Informatics teams. These groups helped with the vaccine site rollout on top of all their regular day-to-day responsibilities.
Technical glitches or break downs at vaccine sites could have led to significant frustrations for patients and put public health at risk, but that hasn’t been an issue in B.C.
“Thanks to Kris and the team, the technical implementation has gone relatively smoothly as we have vaccinated more than half a million people in Vancouver Coastal Health to date,” Eric says.