When British health officials asked for volunteers to help ramp up the country’s COVID-19 vaccination program, Emma Home couldn’t wait to sign up.
Ms. Home, a teacher and social media manager, volunteered to be a vaccinator and gave her first shots last Wednesday to a group of elderly neighbours in a community clinic outside Leeds. “It was absolutely wonderful,” she said before heading back to do more vaccinations over the weekend. “It’s rewarding and a real privilege.”
Ms. Home is part of a growing army of volunteers who have pushed Britain’s vaccination effort harder and faster than anyone expected. Hundreds of village halls, recreation centres, churches and community clinics have been turned into makeshift vaccination sites and tens of thousands of volunteers have manned phone banks and gone door-to-door to make sure that as many people as possible get their jab.
This week the government plans to open 10 more mass vaccination centres in stadiums, racetracks and conference centres, bringing the total to 17.
So far 3.8 million people have been inoculated across Britain and the rate of vaccinations has jumped to nearly 300,000 a day from about 300,000 a week in December. Some regions have been vaccinating people so fast that they’ve been told to slow down so that London and other cities can catch up.
If the current pace continues, government officials believe that everyone over 50 – roughly 32 million people – could receive their first dose by the end of March and that all adults could be vaccinated by the end of June, three months earlier than expected.
“You feel like you’re part of a very big communal effort to make a change,” said Tom White, a retired doctor in Yorkshire who has volunteered to do everything from administering vaccinations to directing traffic and shovelling snow at two vaccination sites near his home in Skipton.
His wife, Helen, who is also a retired doctor, is giving shots as well and helping out as a parking attendant. “We both felt that there was going to need to be a huge volunteer effort,” he added.
The drive for vaccinations has been motivated in part by necessity. Britain has experienced a brutal surge in COVID-19 infections in recent weeks and there are fears the National Health Service could soon be overwhelmed.
Vaccines offer a glimmer of hope and many of those involved in the program say the response has been stunning. In some areas not a single appointment for a shot has been missed and just a handful of people have turned down the offer of a vaccination.
“It’s quite nice actually giving something that everyone really wants,” said Simon Opher, a doctor in Dursley northeast of Bristol who is helping run the town’s vaccination site. “There’s a sense of celebration about it.”
The Dursley site was among the first to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in mid-December, just two weeks after British regulators approved it. Dr. Opher and his team spent days organizing staff, recruiting volunteers and learning about the novel vaccine that uses messenger RNA, molecules that trigger the immune system by telling the body’s cells to produce viral proteins.
The logistics were tricky. The vaccine has to be stored at -70 C, and once it’s taken out of cold storage it must be used within five days. By the time deliveries got to Dursley, Dr. Opher’s group had just three days. And since he rarely got more than a few days’ notice about each shipment, which came in packages of 975 doses, staff had to hurriedly book appointments and hope everyone showed up or the vaccine would be wasted.
The preparation paid off and Dr. Opher’s team started inoculating four people every five minutes and they plan to double that to eight. They moved faster once doctors discovered they could squeeze six or seven doses out of each vial, not five as indicated on the label.
Dursley has administered around 5,000 doses and vaccinated everyone in the government’s top priority group, which includes people over 80 and those living in care homes. They planned to start vaccinating over 70s this week and hoped to go even quicker once the site receives supplies of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, approved on Dec. 30, which can be stored in a fridge. But they’ve been put on hold.
“We’ve been told to stop because it’s politically difficult for us to be so far ahead when some areas of London have done 20 per cent of their over-80s,” Dr. Opher said. “I think it is important to try and equalize things up. It’s just slightly frustrating because we’ve worked hard to get on top of things and get things out early.” He hopes the pause will only last a few days.
Across the country in Keighley, Yorkshire, Matt Curtis’s group has also nearly finished vaccinating everyone in the top priority group in his region, which has around 90,000 patients in total. The Keighley site administers 500 shots a day thanks to local health care staff and 100 volunteers who have signed up as vaccinators.
Dozens more volunteers help arrange appointments, manage parking and greet patients. When a truck loaded with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine got stuck in the snow on Thursday, a local farmer pulled it out with his tractor and saved what could have been a lost day of vaccinations. And when staff had trouble reaching some elderly patients by phone, volunteers went knocking on doors to make sure they were contacted.
“I’ve been in tears at times at how wonderful people are,” said Dr. Curtis. He and others have also marvelled at how grateful people have been to get the vaccine. “I’ve never encountered such a frequency of gratitude from the public,” he said.
That’s certainly how Nora Goodley, 92, felt after she got vaccinated in a village clinic in Snettisham, Norfolk. She was one of 160 elderly people who lined up in the rain on Saturday for jabs. “I feel wonderful,” she said. “It’s a great relief.”
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