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It is 11am at the Newcastle Eagles basketball arena, and the queue for the car park is already bigger than for many home games. An army of volunteers in padded jackets and bobble hats wave through free buses from the city’s poorest suburbs, while discounted taxis disgorge their passengers, some with walking frames and sticks. One woman pushes her severely disabled adult son in his wheelchair.
Some have come in their Sunday best – three-piece suits, twinsets and pearls. A few bear chocolates, biscuits and thank-you cards for the staff. Many look anxious – Robert Graham, a dapper 76-year-old in a fedora and matching tweed jacket, says he’s avoided needles since a trip to the dentist many decades ago and is only here because Joyce, his wife, has made him. Joyce is excited. Finally, their time has come: they are about to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in perhaps the slickest vaccination operation in the UK.
Watching over the hubbub in a royal blue V-neck and striped tie is Christian Townend, chief executive of Newcastle’s GP federation. Along with his team, he is responsible for Newcastle becoming the first UK city to vaccinate all eligible care home residents in January and is now on a mission to inoculate the rest of the local population quicker than anywhere else.
The competition is hot in the north-east, rather like on election nights, when regional rivals compete to be the first to declare a result, with nearby North Tyneside heralding its 20,000th vaccination last week and Newcastle aiming to reach the 25,000 milestone by the end of Sunday.
Townend served for 31 years as an army officer and was the medical planner for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the Royal Red Cross award from the queen. Though managing a mass vaccination programme doesn’t involve the same level of peril, it is not easy to get 2,500 people vaccinated in six hours – Townend’s goal for Saturday – while keeping everyone safe. Barking orders military-style doesn’t work when you have hundreds of people volunteering and a cohort of infirm patients who can’t necessarily hear what you are saying.
“It’s all about consent and collaboration,” says Townend, diplomatically. Dr Antony Moore, chair of Newcastle GP services, calls the geordie approach “the industrialisation of vaccination”. He and Townend persuaded all 31 GP practices in the city to come together under one roof, on two basketball courts, in an operation that can easily vaccinate 30 people every five minutes. “No disrespect to other places, but some GP practices are just doing vaccinations at the local church hall every Thursday. You’re never going to vaccinate your most vulnerable people by Easter if you do it that way,” says Moore.
Inside the arena, Dr Jane Carman, clinical director of one of the city’s primary care networks, is trying to do some mental arithmetic. As the guardian of the vaccine store, she is responsible for getting the vials out of the fridge at the right time. The Oxford/AstraZeneca medicine can only stay at room temperature for six hours, so Carman has to be careful to warm up only what she is sure will be used. “I’m desperate not to waste a drop,” she says, sticking handwritten “use by” labels on the latest batch heading for the basketball courts. “It is a huge responsibility. You do think: oh my God, if I drop this …”
At least it’s not a Pfizer/BioNTech day: “The sums you have to do on a Pfizer day are phenomenal,” says Moore. The Pfizer jab must be used within three days of emerging from the mega-deepfreeze and has to be kept upright: a particular challenge when the GPs blitzed the care homes, carrying the precious vaccine in cool-bags padded out with sponges the medics bought from Sainsbury’s.
Most patients say they barely feel a thing. Others find the process more traumatic. On court one, Kate Stobart, one of the immunisers, is trying to calm a woman with dementia. It is her third visit – the first two had to be aborted after she lashed out, frightened. Stephanie Watson, the “drawer-upper” (technical term) who draws up the right dose in each syringe, holds the woman’s hand and tells her everything is going to be OK. Stobart manages to inject the needle and is enveloped in a big hug by the patient; “not very Covid-secure”, she concedes, but very nice all the same.
At 36, a museum worker, Katie Cagney, is one of the younger patients, invited as part of the clinically extremely vulnerable cohort. She hasn’t left the house apart from for walks since March and is very relieved to have been invited. “The NHS is amazing,” she says. “They’ve saved my life numerous times and now they are saving me again.”
Patience Kunonga, 40, is also a shielder. Originally from Zimbabwe, she works as a researcher at Newcastle University in the medical faculty, but was wary of the jab. “I was a bit hesitant because of certain media circulating online about the side-effects,” she says. She decided to get the vaccine after attending a Zoom Q&A session organised by the Ethnic Minority Independent Council’s Covid Aware project. “That really encouraged me to get it,” she says.
“What a warm bloody glow I’m getting,” says Gerard Reissmann, a local GP on his first day of vaccine duties. “What a breath of fresh air it is to be here. I’ve spent the last 10 months whingeing about how terrible things have been, the shortages of PPE, the government mismanagement, and now I’m here, helping people be vaccinated at breakneck speed. Fantastic.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘We’ve industralised it’: behind the scenes at Newcastle’s Covid vaccine operation | Vaccines and immunisation