Image above: a sticker you may get after receiving the vaccine; Karen Liebreich MBE

Diary of a vaccinator

1 March, 2021 / by Karen Liebreich

When the mission to vaccinate everyone against Coronavirus was announced I volunteered to help. Partly I was being altruistic, but mostly I wanted to be involved, I wanted to have a small part of this historic moment (other than staying home and saving the NHS) and I really wanted to get out of the house, to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to be part of a nationwide effort.

I was assigned to two different clinics within my borough. One was Chiswick Health Centre, the other Feltham Assembly Hall. It was an interesting contrast. Both rooms had been laid out with individual booths with a chair, and one way systems leading patients seamlessly and speedily through from registration, questionnaire about eligibility and other health conditions (any blood thinners, have you had Covid in the last 28 days, have you ever had a bad allergic reaction, might you be pregnant) to vaccination, recovery and exit. In both clinics the speed and efficiency of the process was impressive. The chairs must be kept filled with bottoms, so that the vaccinators always have arms to inject. The rate of vaccination with two or three vaccinators on separate streams is around one injection per minute.

Pfizer days are more relaxed as the patients have to wait 15 minutes in case of a bad reaction before being released. Astra Zeneca Oxford days are frenetic as they only wait five minutes (unless driving), so the turnaround is hectic.

The first days, when we dealt with the very elderly, were extraordinary. It was a real case of “bring me your halt and your lame, your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Everyone was over eighty, some in wheelchairs, many with walking sticks. There were few springs left in their steps. The vigorous young staff, towering over the shrunken aged, shepherded the elderly carefully through the pathway from entrance to exit and potential freedom. Finally we as a society had woken up and were taking care of our elderly and vulnerable. We were not prioritising the economically valuable, the workers or the wealthy. We were showing respect to the old and the fragile. It truly felt like we had rediscovered our values and it brought a lump to my throat.

Images above: people queue outside Chiswick Health Centre for their first jab of the Covid-19 vaccine in January 2021, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

My career was stellar. On the first day I wiped down chairs and guided people to empty chairs. The next day, as it was a Pfizer day, I was upgraded to clerking and asking the health questions. On my next shift I was the first person at the entrance asking names, finding the forms, creating a form if there wasn’t one. By the following week I was downgraded again as new rules had tightened up about who could ask the health questions. Over the weeks there are small changes in rules as more information comes in and procedures adjust. As of this week we no longer wipe down the chairs.

The volunteers are a mixture. In the wealthy area a stay at home mother volunteers for every shift (“Anything to avoid home schooling” she says with desperation in the whites of her eyes), a university student is keen to get away from her assignments, a man has been signed up by his wife who needs to get him out from under her feet… In the poorer area I may have been the only unpaid volunteer – the others seemed to have been seconded from their jobs, for instance as doctor’s receptionists, council workers.

In Chiswick many patients brought chocolates, expensive filter coffee sachets, mints. In Feltham a burly security guard marshals the queue at the front door; in the other clinic volunteers start filling in the forms along the entrance queue. In neither clinic was there a tea break, no designated loo break. We worked through for four hours without a gap in one, six hours in the other. In the poorer area no food was allowed, bottles of water were supplied, but there weren’t even any tea bags. I haven’t worked so hard for many years!

In the wealthy area I had one Spanish person with no English and we struggled to fill in his form with mime, ancient O level Spanish, some Italianate invention and good will. One young woman accompanied her parents and translated for them. In the poorer area the number of white patients with English as a mother tongue was a very small minority. Spelling the names from everywhere in the world was challenging, and masks made communication harder. My ignorance about the composition of my own borough, which I had known was multi-ethnic with a high Asian proportion, offered some surprises – who knew there were so many people of Nepalese origin?

The irregularity of supply means we know only a few days in advance that we will have vials, but not exactly how many. Most people had been rung the night before or even at lunchtime to tell them to come in. Some have only had an hour or two’s notice. Still, they are supposed to be staying at home in lockdown so they should be available.

Out of a few hundred we always have a few no-shows. Last week out of 300 we had nine. It seems a lot, since these people have just been rung and accepted, so these are not hardcore anti-vaxxers. This means there are often a few injections left, and we collate a waiting list during the shift. I dream of being able to ring my friends and distribute left-over vaccinations like surprise Christmas presents. So far no luck.

Towards the end of the shift a few people show up without appointments on the off chance. A lady claimed to be a vaccinator whose application had been lost, and she offered to help. When we refused to give her an immediate job as a vaccinator she demanded her second jab anyhow. We sent her firmly away and our eyes were wide above our masks at her effrontery. All the staff have had or are offered a first jab, no-one is yet allowed a second one.

A GP brought in her elderly parents in their eighties as we were closing saying they had missed their slots as she had been unable to bring them in. We had only one dose left, so there was an invidious Sophie’s Choice with each partner pushing the other forward. In the end the doctor in charge of the session intervened and chose the father, as men are more at risk. No pleading from the daughter could magic up another dose.

There seems to be one grumpy patient per clinic. A man was annoyed that he had been asked to come around 11am, when he had specifically asked for 2pm because it interfered with his breakfast timing; the shrift I gave him was very short. I left him complaining about catheter allocation; I pity his GP. Another was irritated to receive Pfizer when he preferred Astra Zeneca; he was told that was what we had today, he wasn’t being offered a choice. Neither rejected the offer, and both were swept along into the process.

An airline crew member was delighted to get Pfizer – it meant he could carry on flying back and forth to South Africa and when I queried the quarantine arrangements, he said that crew had an exemption. Funny kind of quarantine, where the crew are somehow immune to infection, in spite of spending hours in a confined metal box with potential South African variant carriers.

The fact that we have 50 million doses to give out means that most people understand it’s a conveyor belt and we don’t really have time to cajole people with needle anxiety. Nervous vulnerable teenagers are brought by their mums, carers can go in with their patients, and usually get an injection too. Occasionally a patient is hoping to get a quick consultation about another matter and is cut off straight away. Over the weeks the patients are getting younger, as we move onto the next eligible tranche. Last week patients were in general around 60 years old, or overweight, or teenagers with learning disabilities accompanied by harried parents.

A local hostel housing asylum seekers is offered vaccinations. None of the residents wants one – someone has read on the internet that it tampers with your DNA and that asylum seekers are to get a special different experimental guinea pig version that white English people are not being given. I ring one of them and explain that they will get exactly what all the rest of us have had – what my 89-year old mum had, what my hospital doctor husband has had and is giving to all his patients, what I have had… He changes his mind and says he will talk to the others. The next day I am asked to give a Zoom explanation, translated into Arabic, Farsi and Spanish to a large audience of asylum seekers. I hope I convinced some. 

Overall the experience of the vaccination clinic is joyous. Doctors say it is the nicest clinic they have ever done as the atmosphere is so positive. The patients are thrilled to be there, delighted to be offered a possible path out of the misery of the last year.

Having been extremely cautious all last year and avoided catching it, I am suddenly back out in the world, talking face to face with lots of strangers wearing dubiously adjusted masks, I hope I don’t catch it. But I am delighted to feel a tiny bit useful, and feel privileged to be part of this really impressive national mobilisation.

A version of this blog  was first published on Medium.com. For other articles by the same author see medium.com/@karen.liebreich

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Rate of Covid infection in Chiswick continues to decline

See also: Schools open but Hounslow still has highest infection rate in London

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