In Britain, a Easy ‘Jab’ Opens a New Entrance within the Coronavirus Battle
CARDIFF, Wales – It was an easy thing. A blow with an alcohol swab, a tiny needle stick in the upper arm, and the application of a small plaster.
But the health care workers who will receive a new coronavirus vaccine here Tuesday are among the first in the UK and know it’s more than that.
“I’m really excited for the world,” said Dr. Chris Hingston. “I’m just very happy that we’re taking this first step back towards normality.”
He was among 225 people who were given the vaccine on Tuesday at that makeshift clinic in Cardiff. This spot came about when the UK launched a mass vaccination program that was only theoretical a week ago.
Dr. Hingston, who works as an intensive care doctor at nearby University Hospital of Wales and an ambulance doctor for helicopters, described the event in understated terms: “Just like the flu shot.”
However, he clearly understood that the simple act had a greater purpose: not only to protect himself, but hopefully his family, colleagues and patients from a potentially life-threatening virus as well. The vaccinations that take place here have already met with a worldwide response.
It had only been six days since regulators in the UK announced emergency approval for Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, the first country to release a tested vaccine to the public. The start of the vaccination program – for a virus that has infected tens of millions of people worldwide and claimed more than 1.5 million lives – signals a new phase in the fight against the coronavirus in the UK, which has been severely affected by the disease.
After all, Britain plans to vaccinate as many people in the nation as it can. However, people 80 and over, people working in nursing homes and healthcare workers are currently top of the list when the first 800,000 doses of vaccine are introduced.
Dr. Hingston has spent more than two decades in the profession, more than half of them as an intensive care doctor. But that particular morning when he visited the clinic that was set up in the disused Cardiff gym, he was the patient.
He arrived alone and masked and showed his ID before being shown to the gym. A handful of small cubicles with blue curtains lined the perimeter, and the surrounding chairs were latticed several feet apart.
In a separate room nearby, pharmacists filled syringes with the vaccine and trained new workers in the careful process. Unlike a typical vaccine – like the flu shot – which is often pre-loaded in a syringe for ease of use, the new Pfizer doses must be made on site. They must be frozen before use and only thawed for five days after thawing.
They are kept refrigerated on site and then prepared vials must be used within hours, adding to a sense of urgency among staff.
Darrell Baker, the clinical director of the site’s pharmacy, watched a colleague draw saline from a syringe, flick his finger on the needle to shake off a droplet, and then inject it into a vial containing the vaccine. Mixing is necessary because manufacturers have not yet developed a way to effectively package the vaccine in single doses.
“Hopefully all of this messing around we have to do will be automated over time and we’ll get it in syringes,” said Mr. Baker. “But the fact that we even have the vaccine is fantastic.”
The mixture was soaked up in five syringes and placed in blue bowls. The trays were then taken to the gym and picked up by nurses who moved quickly to get through the waiting patients. At the end of the day, the center was scheduled to give 225 vaccinations, including one for Mr. Hingston. For him, the whole process was over in a few minutes.
“I didn’t even feel it,” he said with a chuckle, chatting airily with Lynne Cronin, 60, the acting senior nurse at the center who was delivering his vaccine.
“They are exactly the people we need to get through,” she said after learning that he was working in an intensive care unit
Mr. Hingston described the past year as challenging. He and his colleagues were scrambling to prepare their intensive care unit for an outbreak when they saw coronavirus cases grow from a cluster in China to a global pandemic. He watched doctors in the same roles as himself and died in hospitals in China, Spain, and Italy as the number rose.
The first cases reached Wales in the spring. Initial forecasts there estimated that their hospital would run out of beds during the first wave. That didn’t happen. Not even during the second wave this fall. But the number of cases has continued to rise, as have the deaths.
In a way, things got less difficult during the second wave, which is still ongoing in Wales. Equipment has improved, as have treatment options for patients, said Dr. Hingston. In Cardiff in particular, there were fewer patients compared to the spring. But the patients treated tended to be sicker and older.
“These patients are long in the hospital,” he said. “And their families can only come to visit if end-of-life care is in progress. It was really difficult. “
It is the fear of overwhelmed wards, not being able to treat patients and hearing the families’ last words to their loved ones delivered over the phone, which was the most difficult thing for him, he said.
He recently said he overheard a farewell cry from the family of a Filipino patient on the ward.
“Although it is a different language, it is very obvious what was being said,” said Dr. Hingston. “Those are the kind of days that have been pretty tough for everyone.”
For other health care workers who were vaccinated here on Tuesday, the experience was also emotional.
Betty Spear, a retired pediatric nurse, pulled the blue curtain back from the small cubicle she worked in after giving a vaccine to a nurse who was crying openly. The woman had worked in a community in Covid.
“She just cried and said this was such an emotional day,” Ms. Spear said. “I suppose she saw a lot.”
Ms. Cronin, who administered Mr. Hingston’s vaccine, said it had been a huge undertaking to get the clinic up and running for Tuesday.
“It was a big challenge getting everyone down,” she said. “We’re still trying to train people. We had to solve all teething problems today and in the next few days. “
Aside from a few issues with staff struggling with the computer system that was used to document each vaccination, she said the morning went smoothly.
Fiona Kinghorn, the executive director of public health at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, the public health agency who led the launch of the mass vaccination program here, said there would be challenges in the coming weeks as the teams reach more people. She asked the public to be patient as she built her vaccination staff into the “army” that was needed.
“It will take some time,” she said. “We have relatively small volumes and we will have to introduce this over time.”
For healthcare workers like Dr. Hingston, who were vaccinated here on Tuesday, this was just the beginning of this next phase. He’s booked for the second dose next month and, according to Pfizer, will have the full protection this particular vaccine offers within seven days.
“Will it change anything I do today? No, ”he said. He will still wear his mask, put on his PPE at work, distance himself socially, and wash hands frequently.
“But in months,” he said, “if everyone gets the vaccine, hopefully life will return to normal for all of us.”