ARCHANES, Greece — Greece has begun administering vaccinations for COVID-19 outside churches in a pilot program recently announced by the government as a means of encouraging more people to get the shots.
Mobile National Health Organization units began administering shots Monday in a church yard in Archanes, a town near the city of Heraklion on the southern island of Crete.
The single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine was being used, with shots being administered from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Fifty-two appointments were booked for the first day, but some people were turning up without appointments and were being given the vaccines.
The government announced the program last month, with mobile health care units to administer shots in town squares outside churches, initially in Crete and later expanding to the country's main cities.
Authorities have been seeking to boost Greece's vaccination drive with a series of incentives, and have sought the support of the country's powerful Orthodox Church. Vaccination against COVID-19 has been made compulsory for health care workers in the private and public sector, while certain entertainment venues such as indoor restaurants and bars will be accessible only to those who have a certificate of vaccination or recent recovery from the disease.
"There is no solution to this great danger ravaging humanity other than the vaccines," said Father Andreas Kaliontzakis, priest of the Church of Virgin Mary outside which Monday's vaccination drive was taking place.
"It is a one-way-street and as a church we thought that we have to stand with the people," he said.
Nikos Tzanakis, a professor of pulmonology, was also outside the church for the vaccine drive, which he described as "an act of high symbolism to point out that our church, this great social and spiritual entity of our country, sides with the national efforts for vaccination."
The church giving its backing was motivation for some to get vaccinated.
Local resident Michalis Vardakis, 73, said he got his shot "because Father Andreas mediated and he is well respected in Archanes, and for the sake of my grandchildren, because I cannot stand to be afraid to hug my grandchildren."
Vaccines against the coronavirus are freely available in Greece to anyone with a social security number over the age of 12. More than 5.7 million people have been fully vaccinated so far in this country of around 11 million people. According to official health department figures, 90% of the 381 COVID-19 patients intubated in intensive care are unvaccinated.
The country has a total of nearly 600,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 13,800 deaths.