Privileged and Thankful

Kerry Bowers 'drawing up' with plenty of Hollywood pizzaz

This morning I recorded 50 COVID-19 immunisations. Yesterday, across two shifts at different sites, I recorded 92. Since 11 February I’ve done 61 such shifts and, I estimate, recorded the administering of well over 2,000 doses. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life and, like everyone else involved, I will be sad when I do my 62nd and final shift tomorrow evening.

Basic facts: The Suffolk GP Federation was commissioned to deliver the COVID-19 vaccines to the top 9 cohorts, that is, everyone in the county over 50 and/or clinically vulnerable in some way. With over 200,000 doses delivered to over 100,000 arms, that task is now complete and the commission comes to an end tomorrow evening at Trinity Park, Ipswich. The centres at the Epicentre in Haverhill, The Mix in Stowmarket and the Debenham Community Centre closed over the weekend. The Woodbridge centre will stay open for a little longer but basically, we're done. Other parts of the NHS, locally for instance the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust will continue. It’s not the end of the vaccine roll out in the county, just the bit I’ve been involved with.

My journey began when I received my own first dose in January. I arrived at the vaccination clinic in East Bergholt and was directed to a parking space by one of many people in high-visibility jackets. When I got to the building I was checked in by someone behind a desk, led to a consulting room by someone else, vaccinated by a recently retired nurse, shown to a waiting area in a marquee where more people sat behind more desks and yet more people in high-vis jackets attended me for the 15 minutes you wait after a Pfizer shot.

A laptop is in the foreground. Behind it you can see a sharps bin and other clinical paraphernalia in a small booth
The admin view. Two separate windows are open on the laptop because we need to use two non-interoperable systems to record each visit (grr...). In the background you can see into the booth where things like gloves and swabs are available, as well as the sharps bin. This was at the Woodbridge Community Centre, 8 May 2021

It didn’t take much to work out that this was a huge operation that involved clinical staff, administrators, and a lot of volunteers.

And how did we get here? It began with men and women studying for years to understand infectious diseases and how the human immune system can be prepared to face an incoming threat so that the threat is neutralised. It all goes back to Edward Jenner and the milk maids, yes, but we’ve come a long way since then. The institute at Oxford University that is named after Jenner, led by Professor Sarah Gilbert, was ready to fight ‘disease X’ long before it emerged. Other teams around the world were also ready. They knew it was a matter of when the pandemic would come, not if.

My immuniser partner for my penultimate shift this morning and the pen-penultimate shift last night, Kerry Bowers, and me.

But that lab work and the clinical trials with volunteers like my brother only gets you a test tube full. According to Radio 4’s More or Less to give everyone in the world the required two x 0.3ml doses of the BioNTech vaccine would take approximately two Olympic swimming pools of liquid. For everyone to have 2 x 0.5 ml of the Oxford vaccine would take roughly three Olympic swimming pools – and making vaccines is hard. The active ingredient needs to be handled in a clinically-controlled environment. It essentially has to be ‘brewed’. That’s why big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and AstraZeneca must be involved. They’re the only ones with the manufacturing capacity and the cold-chain logistics to deliver it.

So back to that marquee in East Bergholt. I’m there because all that work by clinicians, engineers, logisticians and administrators has come together under the aegis of the National Health Service and a vaccination programme led by Kate Bingham. Oh, and I'm not hungry because of the resilience of supermarket supply chains, the delivery networks, the men and women accelerating the digital transformation of retail, and so many more people who have worked throughout the pandemic.

Can I help?

By this time, my wife was already out of retirement and immunising for the Suffolk GP Federation so I got in touch and offered to do just that. I assumed I’d be donning a high-vis jacket and standing in the cold but I was invited to take a quick online course about vaccine storage so that I could not only be a marshal but I could also be a steward or an administrator.

I have no clinical knowledge but I do know how to fill in an online form and that’s essentially what I’ve been doing. Checking name, address and basic demographic information, and then recording that a dose from lot A of batch B of vaccine C was delivered by immuniser D to the left or right deltoid muscle of patient E.

Save.

Next.

A whiteboard filled with short greetings from many of the staff. An artists' hand, botom right, can be seen drawing lots of people, cartoon-style.
The 'Banksy Board' at Trinity Park, Ipswich. Senior nurse, Zoe Martin, is showing her talent as a cartoonist as she has throughout the programme.

The reward, of course, was in the people. The retired nurses, the off-duty nurses, phlebotomists and diabetes carers, the psychiatric nurses, the podiatrists, the pharmacy technicians, the dental nurses, and GPs. And alongside them the furloughed hair dressers and bar staff, the school administrators, the students, the shop workers, the retired and the available - a complete cross section of people who came together to make this happen.

In the early days we saw elderly people for whom their trip to the vaccination centre marked the first time they’d left the house for months and it was all about the gratitude and the end being in sight. By the end the national mood had lifted and it was about getting it done and having a laugh while doing it. Two patients stand out in my mind but for different reasons.

Yesterday the immuniser I was working with at The Mix in Stowmarket and I were warned that the man in the next cubicle had been rude to the check in staff and to the GP he’d seen and so we should expect him to be rude to us. “Do you consent to me giving you the vaccine?” he was asked. Cue rant about how he was being forced into it. How he didn’t agree with it, how he didn’t agree with social distancing and … “I'm sorry but I need a definite answer. Do you consent to me giving you the vaccine?” Yes.

Jab.

Save.

Next.

For the record, in case this isn’t blindingly obvious, taking the vaccine is voluntary. Social distancing is about protecting others from a potentially lethal disease you may not know you have. It’s about saving lives.

The other case I’ll mention here is memorable for the opposite reason. Imagine being locked down and shielding your young adult daughter who has learning difficulties. She can’t go out so you can’t go out. There is no respite because all her normal activities are closed and she really doesn’t understand why. You have no choice but to put your own life on hold and cope.

So today’s the day for the jab. The young woman was nervous, of course, and didn’t really understand what was going on so she giggled a lot and was just lovely. Sitting next to her, there’s mum. And she’s in floods of tears. This is the beginning of the end of the nightmare. This is hope. This is a tsunami of relief.

I had to spend a minute or two in the staff room before I could pull myself together enough to carry on to the next patient.

My own vaccination card, now largely superseded by the NHS App

One of the jobs that most immunisers ask their admin support to do is to write out the cards that you’re given, with the batch numbers and dates of your vaccinations. Loads of people have posted pictures of theirs on social media. I have been close to tears with pride to be a tiny part of the programme as I hand someone a card that was first issued in March with a date and time for their second shot in June – and there, months later, right on time, is a skilled immuniser with the right dose of the right vaccine at the right time to make that person safe – and everyone around them safe too.

It has been a privilege from start to finish. A heartfelt thank you to everyone I’ve had the pleasure of doing this with since February and the thousands upon thousands of others who made it possible.

A nurse in the entrance to a small booth, looking at her laptop on top of a small trolley. The patient she's talking to is inside the booth and hidden
Herself

One more thing.

I don’t talk about anyone else on this website out of respect for their own privacy. On this occasion I will make an exception. I mentioned that my wife came out of retirement to help with this. I haven’t seen her this happy and this fulfilled for decades. She has been a stalwart of the programme, especially at Trinity Park, Ipswich and everyone says that she’s incredible.

Yes she is xx.