In Conversation with Noah Gascon: First-Year UWindsor Student and Founder of WindsorVax Finders
If you’re a resident of Windsor-Essex, you’ve probably run into WindsorVax Finders online, whether that be on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Perhaps this volunteer-run organization helping eligible locals find COVID-19 vaccine appointments has even helped you. But what you might not know is that WVF was founded by a first-year UWindsor student. I reached out to Noah Gascon, Concurrent Political Science student, Constituency Aid to Member of Parliament Irek Kusmierczyk, and creator of WindsorVax Finders to discuss how this organization came to be. Read our conversation below.
RH: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
NG: My name is Noah Gascon. I’m a first-year Concurrent Political Science student at the University of Windsor. The two faculties I’m involved in are FAHSS and the Faculty of Education. I’m also the founder and president of WindsorVax Finders, which is an organization that helps thousands of Windsor-Essex residents find COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
RH: You mentioned in our conversation earlier that you also do constituency work. Do you want to talk about that?
NG: Sure. So, I work as a constituency aid for the Member of Parliament Irek Kusmierczyk. He’s the MP for the riding of Windsor-Tecumseh, and just last week I started a new position there as the constituency aid. My job there is to listen to all the constituents’ concerns across Windsor-Essex and any issues they may have with certain dealings with the government, and then to forward them to the right personnel and resources.
It’s been a great first week so far. We’re organizing a vaccination clinic in our parking lot next week, and during this time in this office, I’ve learned so much about the issues that are affecting our community, and I look forward to really just gaining more knowledge as I move along in the process of the job.
RH: Awesome, so you’re super interested in politics all across the board. As you mentioned, you are the founder of WindsorVax Finders. For those who don’t know, could you explain what the organization WindsorVax Finders is?
NG: Absolutely. So, what happened was that in April 2021, vaccine shipments were starting to increase across Canada, as well as in Ontario and Windsor-Essex. During that time, there wasn’t necessarily a system in place where people could easily access vaccination appointments. It’s kind of like the rapid testing right now, it’s very difficult to get a rapid test due to issues with distribution.
So I thought, wait, let’s create a local organization with people who really care about their community to help people find appointments. We knew that there were so many people who are immunocompromised, elderly people, and even just the general population, who were eligible for vaccines but did not know where to get them or could not access an appointment in one channel. So I thought we could create some kind of organization that could help people essentially locate appointments through pharmacies, mass vaccination sites, or pop-up clinics where you don’t even need an appointment.
We wanted to provide people with information about all those resources because we know that time is of the essence. If you can get a vaccine a few days earlier, that could be the difference between getting infected with COVID and potentially ending up in the hospital, or getting infected with COVID and not ending up in the hospital, and the latter is obviously a much better situation. So, really it was to help people across Windsor-Essex get their appointments. And that’s what this organization has done. It’s helped thousands of Windsor-Essex residents get their vaccine appointments.
RH: Just out of curiosity, do you know if there’s anything similar to WindsorVax Finders in other cities? Were you inspired by another similar organization elsewhere?
NG: Absolutely. So, you may have heard of Vaccine Hunters Canada, which I believe started in early April to late March 2021. I saw all the amazing work that they were doing across Canada helping people find appointments in different regions and provinces. And it’s awesome that they’re able to do that work. But I thought, what if we had a local resource that could be easily accessed by residents and met the local needs of our community? Because the needs of Windsor are obviously different from the needs of Toronto or the needs of Vancouver. There are different demographics and different people in these communities who require certain resources to get appointments. So, obviously when we put a local lens on this matter, we were able to really help people find their appointments in that way, and Vaccine Hunters Canada really inspired me to do that. WindsorVax Finders probably wouldn’t exist if I didn’t get the inspiration from that.
RH: Can you explain how the group is run? For example, how many volunteers are part of WindsorVax Finders? Who is responsible for what tasks? How does it all work?
NG: So, putting the logistics of this entire organization in place was complicated at the beginning, but once we got everything in place, we were able to run very smoothly. So, we had 30 volunteers, and we divided them into three separate teams of 10 people each.
The first was the social media team, and they’re responsible for posting all the appointments that were found by the pharmacy team, which I’m going to explain in a second. Essentially, the social media team uses Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and they create graphics and posts and post them on a daily basis to help people find their appointments.
One of the resources within that team that I’m really proud of is the fact that we have a crew dedicated to answering direct messages and emails. We had a lot of people with a lot of different questions as to where they could find the vaccine or if they’re even eligible to get their first, second, or a booster dose of the vaccine. So, the team that was responsible for the communications and social media has done an absolutely incredible job.
And that team wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have our pharmacy team and Health Unit team. Essentially, the Health Unit team would go on the Health Unit website every single day and check how many appointments were available at each mass vaccination site. So if you remember, we had the site at the WFCU Center, we had a site at Saint Clair College, and I believe we had one in downtown Windsor. So, the Health Unit team would find out how many appointments are available at each site, and then our social media team will post that, and people could go ahead and book their appointments.
And finally, the pharmacy team played a really important role. When vaccines were first rolled out in the pharmacies, it was kind of like The Hunger Games because there was no centralized booking system to get your vaccination appointments at the pharmacy. So, you had to call each pharmacy individually, and for somebody who’s elderly or somebody who might have a lot of work or two jobs, you might not have the time to do that. So, what our volunteers in the pharmacy team did was they contacted each pharmacy in Windsor-Essex on a weekly basis. They tried to contact one out of every three pharmacies in Windsor-Essex every day to make sure that we could locate which pharmacies had appointments and which specific type of vaccine they may have. So, when we did find appointments from the pharmacies, those pharmacy team volunteers would send them off to the social media team, and then they would go ahead and make a post about it.
I’m just so proud of the way it’s been run and so proud of our volunteers because this wouldn’t be possible without them. They’ve done so much amazing work and they continue to do so.
RH: Are all the volunteers on your team students such as yourself, or are there others that are just locals to the city of Windsor or to Windsor-Essex?
NG: Actually, the funny thing about that is that all of our volunteers come from different walks of life, which is incredible. We have people who are retired nurses who are actually volunteering for us as well. We have lots of students volunteering for us, whether they’re from the University of Windsor or Saint Clair College. We have high school students getting their community service hours through this, which is awesome. And we also had people from outside of Windsor join our team. We actually had people from Toronto help us, which was incredible. We also had people from the United States volunteer. We have one volunteer from Detroit who actually helped us find vaccines as well. So, all different walks of life, all different kinds of people, and really, yeah, it made a perfect team of people to get this done and get people their appointments.
RH: So, what made you interested in creating WindsorVax Finders in the first place? You touched on it a bit earlier, but would you like to expand?
NG: Yeah, for sure. I actually have a personal story regarding this. So, on December 31st, 2020, my family received a phone call that my great grandmother had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and she was in a long-term care home. Her condition rapidly deteriorated, and six days later she unfortunately passed away. And the day after she passed away, they brought the vaccine to her nursing home. And there were many families in this situation, it wasn’t just ours. Probably all across Ontario people had to deal with this—the fact that if the vaccine may have gotten there earlier, she potentially might have been able to beat the virus and survive.
And in that moment and the days after that, I realized that if you can get a vaccine as early as possible, even if it’s just a few days earlier, it can be the difference between life and death for some people. And when I started the organization, that’s what I had in mind as well, because if we can really get these vaccines out as soon as possible, it may save lives and make the difference between a mild infection and a severe infection. So, that was one of my inspirations for creating this organization.
And another one was Vaccine Hunters Canada, like I said. They ran such an amazing team across Canada, finding vaccine appointments for Canadians in all different provinces, territories, and regions.
There was also a sense of failure from the provincial government and the fact that they did not put a centralized booking system in place for pharmacies. That was a problem for so many people, and I thought why don’t we have citizens from our community step up and help resolve this if our government is not going to do it. So, that’s another issue as well.
We were able to put together an amazing group, and I think we potentially saved lives just based off the amount of people we were able to help.
RH: I’m so sorry for your loss. The fact that vaccines were brought to your great-grandmother’s nursing home the day after she died is terrible.
NG: Thank you for that. Luckily, she was able to live a really long life, she lived until she was 92 years old. But like I said, there are a lot of families across Ontario who were probably in that same situation, even with people who were in their 60s, 70s, or younger. If people can get access to the vaccine earlier, it could absolutely mean the difference between life or death, and that’s why I encourage anybody who doesn’t have their first or second dose to please go get it. Even if it’s not necessarily as effective against infection, there is still very high efficacy against severe illness, and it can keep you and your loved ones out of the hospital. So please get vaccinated.
RH: Absolutely. You briefly mentioned a sense of failure on the part of the provincial government. You know, the fact that a service like WindsorVax Finders isn’t being formally provided by the provincial government is a sort of failure of our health system. Do you want to expand on that a little bit?
NG: Yeah, for sure. When we started this organization, the mandate was to help as many people as possible, so we remain politically neutral and stay out of politics. But if I’m commenting on a personal level here, I absolutely believe that the provincial government failed with the fact that they decided to put the vaccinations in pharmacies and they didn’t have a centralized booking system to book appointments, and that can be very difficult for many people. So, that’s why I decided to start our pharmacy division of WindsorVax Finders, so they could call the pharmacies and we could put that information out to the public when the government did not.
But at the end of the day, the Health Unit did an incredible job providing the appointments for the mass vaccination sites. Their site was actually very smooth in being able to book an appointment at mass vaccination sites. But I still think that there was definitely more work to do with the pharmacies, and the government did not live up to that commitment and accessibility with vaccinations and pharmacies. I’m happy our organization was able to help, but in the future, if we ever do have another pandemic and there needs to be another mass vaccination campaign, hopefully the provincial government will have a centralized booking system with the pharmacies.
RH: For sure. On another note, has WindsorVax Finders faced any sort of backlash or online hate from anti-vaccine proponents?
NG: Unfortunately, yes. Although it hasn’t been a lot, we have received some pretty directed comments towards our group from anti-vaccine proponents. When we look at people who have not received vaccinations, there’s a very slim portion of that group that is vaccine-hesitant, who are not getting the vaccine not because they’re anti-vaccine, but just because they have serious concerns.
I’m Indigenous myself. There’s a lot of people up North who did not get vaccinated, not because they are anti-vaccine, but just because they don’t trust Western medicine. They don’t trust the government, and there has been broken trust over a long period of time, and it has nothing to do with the COVID pandemic.
But unfortunately, the vast majority of people who are unvaccinated now are part of this anti-vax crowd, which spews out rhetoric on a daily basis that is completely false, and unfortunately deters many people from getting vaccinated. And unfortunately, like I said, WindsorVax Finders has been targeted with some comments that are essentially saying things like vaccines don’t work, vaccines are causing issues with people, vaccines are not our way out of this pandemic, your organization is doing a disservice to our community.
And what I say to that is they can say all they want about the vaccinations, but the statistics do not lie. You are significantly more likely to end up in the hospital if you are unvaccinated compared to if you have had two or three doses of the vaccine. What I tell my volunteers to respond to this is that we are the messenger, we are not the manager. If you have a problem with government policy, vaccination mandates, vaccination passports, and that sort of thing, then take it up with your member of provincial Parliament. You’re directing your rhetoric at the wrong people, even though I strongly disagree with the rhetoric. If they want to protest that the government is imposing these public health measures, they’re more than welcome to do so at Queen’s Park or to call their member of provincial Parliament and voice their concerns. And that’s what I tell my volunteers. And we just shake it off and move forward.
RH: Do you have any new projects planned for WindsorVax Finders in the near future?
NG: We’re going to be continuing to provide everybody with information about pop-up clinics for booster vaccinations. We want as many people as possible to get boosters so that we can get out of this Omicron wave. Our team is really committed to finishing up this booster campaign and then we will make our plans about the future of WindsorVax Finders.
RH: If there ever comes a point where we reach herd immunity and return to some kind of normal, what do you think is going to happen with WindsorVax Finders?
NG: If we do reach a point of herd immunity, and there is a chance that it would be just like the flu shot, you may have to get a COVID vaccination on an annual basis. But if we don’t, we may be able to transition WindsorVax Finders into a self-service portal where you visit our website and select whatever you need, whether that’s a link to book your vaccination appointment, find a pop-up clinic, email us, or find a pharmacy administering vaccines. Basically, it will give people the power to find their vaccination appointments. So, WindsorVax Finders is going to stay I think, but it just might run in a different format if we do reach herd immunity or if we have annual vaccination campaigns.
RH: Is there anything else you wanted to share with our readers? Any parting words?
NG: First of all, I just want to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this interview.
And like I said earlier, if you have not gotten vaccinated: please, please, please get vaccinated. I’m begging you. If you have not gotten your first and second dose, please get your first and second dose. It’s proven to reduce hospitalizations and your severity of the illness. If you’re eligible, go get your booster dose. If you are three months past your second dose, you are eligible to get a booster dose, and there’s so many different avenues to get it. You can go to a pharmacy, one of the pop-up clinics. The chances of hospitalization are lower with a booster dose compared to two doses, so if you want to get that full protection, go get your booster dose.
RH: All great advice. Thank you so much for letting me interview you and for the great work you’ve done with WindsorVax Finders.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.