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As I sit down to look back on the last few months volunteering with St John Ambulance, the UK is fast approaching 50% of the adult population receiving a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. In fact, by the time this blog has gone live we may have passed that milestone, with the second dose percentage also rapidly increasing. In 12 months, we’ve gone from scientists and clinicians in Oxford, and the rest of the world, putting the final touches on their vaccine candidates and trial protocols, to regulatory approval and vaccine roll-out on a global scale. What an astonishing success.
My journey vaccinating began unknowingly at the very start of the pandemic. I’d signed up as a volunteer first responder with the Royal Voluntary Service during the first lockdown, delivering medicines and supporting those shielding in my community over the first few months. It was through this, that in November last year I was referred to St John Ambulance to support the vaccination effort, right at the start of the drive to recruit volunteers ahead of the expected approval of the first vaccine in December.
It then took little over a month to become fully qualified; application forms, Christmas, virtual interviews, two eLearning programmes and an in-person training day and clinical assessment were all completed by mid-January. My first shift followed a few weeks later, one bitterly cold February morning (the minus temperatures a shock as I had not been up that early to tackle de-icing the car all winter!) at a converted NHS Clinical Commissioning Group office. Here I was honoured to be vaccinating NHS and health and social workers in my area, and I had my first real glimpse of the enormity of the task the NHS was undertaking, and the absolute brilliance of the people around the country making it happen.
I’ve since been able to volunteer at two other vaccination sites in my area – a leisure centre and Epsom Racecourse, my nearest mass vaccination site. As an early bird, I typically do the morning shifts, which span from 7:30am–1:30pm and start with a lateral flow test and a team briefing ahead of the first appointments. Each shift absolutely flies by, the six hours blurring into a sea of mask-covered faces and conversations, most often joyful and uplifting, but some delicate and poignant. The pandemic has had a startling cost on human life, and there’s a tangible sense of hope with every vaccination.
It’s very difficult to not get overwhelmed by it, if I’m completely honest. Being the first person someone has had a conversation with in-person in over a year; grandparents looking forward to reuniting with their grandchildren; a wife overwhelmed with the thought of seeing her husband in care; a husband whose wife sadly passed away before receiving her vaccination; the list goes on. There have been several times where I’ve had to take a few moments to myself between appointments, and even now, I can’t help but be moved thinking about the enormous sacrifices people have made and the losses they’ve endured.
My time vaccinating has also made me reflect on the responsibility we shoulder within this industry. Not only do we have to facilitate the creation and adoption of new medicines, but also ensure all that surrounds them is communicated with clarity and complete transparency, so that people feel empowered to make the correct decisions regarding their health.
And this past year hasn’t been easy on that front. We’ve been faced with communicating what we do on a scale we have never dealt with before, on new and exciting areas of medicine that are quite rightfully being questioned. We have had prominent scientists and clinicians forced into the public spotlight, many of whom have done a fantastic job at communicating data and scientific concepts with brevity and clarity; some… well, not so much, all whilst going up against a wider media that focusses on the small missteps rather than the giant leaps in progress we are making.
We’ve also seen the effects of misinformation and distrust rise among communities, as well as instances of post-marketing adverse events that need to be addressed with global eyes and expectation bearing down on them. For me, I think around these more recent developments, we can do better. For every press conference on the latest data, there is an opportunity to educate on how clinical trials are run and the speed the vaccines have come to market; for every invite for vaccination, there’s a short window to inform on post-marketing adverse events that do not, on the most part, undermine the reasons for approval. The wider public has never been so tapped into what we do day-to-day and we should seize this attention and make good with it whilst it remains pointed our way.
My time vaccinating looks to continue well into the autumn, by which time all adults in the UK should be fully vaccinated and decisions around boosters or vaccinating under 18s will likely have been made. It’s been, I hope, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and has shown me the greatness that exists in individuals and the achievements we can obtain when we work together for the good of many. It’s also highlighted the challenges we face, both as scientists, healthcare professionals and as a wider society, that perhaps we have not yet fully realised how to address and mitigate in the future. All I know for now is, whist I am happy to be playing my part in whatever way I can, there’s a bittersweet feeling of looking forward to the day I’m not having my nose and throat swabbed in a leisure centre at 7:30am.
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