When the first Covid vaccine was approved, I was hoping for a quicker end to what has already been an incredibly long Covid-19 crisis. But the revelation of new Covid strains, with increased transmission rates, and concern about the government’s ability to roll vaccinations out rapidly, meant my hopes for a quick end to this crisis were brought into check.
The opportunity presented itself to volunteer at the Covid-19 vaccination centre at Newton Heath Health Centre in Manchester and the thought of contributing to the push to crush this virus appealed to me.
This was to be the first mass Covid-19 vaccination site in northern Manchester. The centre started running the vaccine programme on 9 and 10 January, with two six hour shifts per day. Extra days were added as more vaccine became available and it is uncertain how long the vaccination centre will be situated in Newton Heath.
First, I volunteered for a six hour morning shift on 10 January. Impressed by my experience on that first day I then signed up for another shift on 14 January.
Pre-vaccination volunteer day
After registering on the Manchester website to be a volunteer I was then emailed a list of dates and times available. I selected a shift for the morning of Sunday 10 January and was given some pre-volunteering information about parking and refreshments. A Marshalling Handbook was emailed to me which gave advice on the duties of volunteers, what to wear, the layout and direction map of the vaccine delivery centre, and how to deal with emergencies.
The vaccination to be administered on the day was the Pfizer-Biontech COVID-19 vaccine and those invited were mostly aged 80 years and over, living in the Miles Platting, Newton Heath and Moston areas. The expectation was to vaccinate 40 people per hour within a safe environment.
This Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first one approved in the UK and the world, which is being imported from Belgium. One of its difficulties is that it must be stored at -70C and after thawing, the vaccine must be diluted and administered and used within six hours with any unused vaccine then discarded.
Vaccination volunteer day
We were told to arrive early for a Covid test, but on my first volunteer day the Covid tests were not available for the volunteers. We did however sign the usual no symptoms declaration before commencing work.
On my second volunteer day (14 Jan) we were given the lateral flow test for Covid and were not allowed to enter the centre until our tests came back negative. This test involves inserting a swab into each nostril which is put into a tube and tested. It is easy and quite comfortable to do and takes 20 minutes for the result to appear.
Next, an induction and operational site briefing led by Val Bayliss-Brideaux, Head of Engagement at Manchester Health and Care Commissioning. She is in charge of planning, in conjunction with medical staff, along with implementing the volunteer side of this and other vaccine sites.
Every volunteer was given a high visibility vest and a whistle for medical or security emergencies. Masks and hand sanitisers were also provided.
I was assigned the role of marshalling people into the reception area where patients were ticked off on the appointment list. The working environment felt positive for both staff and volunteers.
On my second volunteer day, my role was marshalling patients into the pods where they were given the vaccine.
What to expect if receiving a vaccination
The patients I met were very optimistic but also a little nervous. My advice is that there is nothing to worry about. Everything is socially distanced with chairs constantly being sanitised before being used again, along with a one way system throughout.
After going through the reception area to register, patients were then escorted to one of the 7 pods where the vaccinations were administered and then taken to the waiting area where they sit for 15 minutes before being allowed to leave.
There were many volunteers and staff helping patients through the system and those needing assistance were allowed to bring a family member or helper with them as well.
When I was marshalling the vaccine area, I was impressed with the staff. They were so friendly, helpful, and patient. When someone goes into the vaccine area, they will be asked some questions about allergies and if they have been on any Covid trials. After the vaccine, you are then given a card showing your name, what vaccine you have had, and the date. This card should be kept for your next appointment, as all the Covid vaccinations need a second injection, which will be within nine to 12 weeks. You are then asked to sit for 15 minutes in the waiting area and then you can go home.
I am not a medical person but from my observations, I saw a safe and well-organised operation. Make sure you dress warm as the site was well ventilated with doors open to the cold January air, but also keep in mind that you need to wear something that easily allows for your arm to be exposed for the jab.
The only problem that I witnessed, was the queue to get into the centre. Early in the morning, there were only a few people arriving for the vaccine and then suddenly there was a long line with many having to stand outside in the cold and rain in order to maintain social distancing. I was informed by the staff that some of this was caused by people not arriving at their designated appointment times. On the second day, we had to slow down the jabs as there was not enough room in the observation room to maintain social distancing.
I am going to keep on volunteering and if you receive a vaccine appointment, please take advantage of it if possible. There are a lot of anti-vax conspiracy theories circulating, but they are based on lies and irrational arguments – they are downright dangerous. This Pfizer-Biontech vaccine has proven to be very safe in a large clinical trial involving 42,000 people, where side effects were rare and mild. This same trial showed this vaccine to be 95% effective in preventing someone contracting Covid-19.
At the end of my second shift on 14 January, I was offered a vaccine as there were some unused doses and if not used, they would have to be discarded – it was better to give them to any interested volunteers than waste them, so I gladly accepted it. The jab itself only hurt for a second and other than a slightly sore arm and a mild aching body the next morning, it was easy and now looking forward to getting that second jab and the peace of mind it will provide.
I know that we all want the vaccinations to be done quickly, but I can see that the logistics are complicated , the availability of the vaccine, the size of venues, and the limited number of volunteers as well as qualified people to do the vaccinations may also constrain the speed of rollout. Sites are set up very last minute as they must wait to be told when they will get the next batch and how large it will be.
There is also a need for more volunteers. Now that I am on the registered volunteer list, I can see that there are more positions than volunteers as I receive many requests to help out, so it appears that more of us need to volunteer.
Get out there and help if you can! And we can look forward to being able to meet friends and family again.
Volunteers for vaccination centres can sign up at Manchester Community Central
To get a vaccine currently in most Greater Manchester boroughs you must be invited by your GP. They will contact you about an appointment.
If you live in Salford and are aged 75+ you can book your first Covid-19 vaccination here.
More information on vaccine centres in Manchester can be found here.
Vaccines are distributed by a protocol set out by the government, starting with care home workers and residents, people 80+, frontline health and social care workers, people 75 to 79, and followed by clinically extremely vulnerable people aged 70 to 74 and so on.
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In article photos: Dale Anne McAulay
Feature image: Christian Emmer (emmer.com.ar) CC BY-NC 4.0