Tuesday, December 8, will forever be remembered as a landmark day in our fight against coronavirus .
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was approved for use by the regulatory body the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) last week, started being rolled out across the UK.
From Tuesday morning frontline health and care staff in Wales and the over-80s started receiving the first of two jabs spaced three or four weeks apart, with others most at risk of complications from the virus to follow.
More than 6,000 doses will be administered by the end of this week across Welsh hospitals and makeshift vaccine centres as part of the first batch of 20,000 from Belgium, followed by millions more over the coming weeks.
One of the vaccination centres, at Cardiff and Vale Therapy Centre in Splott, was a hub of socially-distanced activity throughout the day as healthcare workers in areas like A&E and intensive care became among the first in the world to be immunised.
One of those was Hannah Murch who has worked a paediatric emergency medicine consultant at the University Hospital of Wales (UHW), Cardiff, since 2014.
“Today is a huge step in the right direction and we are all over the moon to be here and taking it,” she said.
“It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel. For the first time there is hope. This pandemic has been going on for so long and finally you can see that life may change and get better.
“The vaccine itself was absolutely fine, no problems at all, and it didn’t hurt a bit.”
Despite treating children who rarely get seriously unwell with coronavirus Hannah said her way of working “totally changed” during the pandemic with her team having to move out of A&E and into the neighbouring children’s hospital.
“We experienced challenges for different reasons. We saw children who presented to us a lot later and sicker than they normally would have done because I think people were scared to come into hospital with them,” she said.
“That had a big impact on us and our staff. We felt helpless in some ways and it was a really sad time. We also felt we were leaving our colleagues in A&E behind because it was truly hellish for them.”
In a small side room at the Cardiff and Vale Therapy Centre were pharmacists Darrell Baker, Rhys Oats, and Rebekah Kirkhum who were carefully making up the 225 vaccines needed that day.
Darrell, who is chief pharmacist for the health board, said his job is to ensure the vaccine is being used safely and appropriately across Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.
He added that the vaccination workforce will need to increase rapidly over the weeks ahead with more registered nurses being trained to administer it.
“As time goes on we will be slicker but it’s a very steep learning curve for all of us,” said Darrell, who said it took around five minutes to make up one vaccine.
“Because of the criticality of preparation and measurement of doses we have to use healthcare professionals.”
The process of putting together the Pfizer vaccine involves taking a small vial out of a fridge which is then diluted and mixed, checked by a second pair of eyes for measurement accuracy, before five individual doses are withdrawn from the vial into syringes.
The syringes are then brought into the main hall at the centre where people are given the jab in their upper arm in one of five cubicles or “stations” – soon to be extended to 20.
“When we receive it it has a date and time written on it that tells us we have five days for it to be used [in its refrigerated state],” he added.
“It’s actually quite emotional just being part of all of this, knowing the impact this could well have. We still have to vaccinate a large amount of our population but it is absolutely amazing that we’re in this position.”
Fiona Kinghorn, the executive director of public health at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, confirmed 975 vaccines would be given out at the Cardiff and Vale Therapy Centre over the next five days.
“I was driving into the site this morning and I just thought: ‘What a place to be driving into’,” she said.
“It’s an historic occasion and I’m extremely proud of all the teams who have worked for the past six months to get this vaccination programme under way.
“I’m so proud to see the first health and social care workers coming through the front door to get a vaccine.”
Meanwhile similar work was being undertaken at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend – the first site in Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board to administer the Covid-19 vaccine to priority groups.
Speaking outside the hospital Catherine Theron, a senior matron who has been an NHS nurse for 20 years, said: “It’s a really exciting day for our frontline staff who have worked really hard over the last year to battle this pandemic.
“They have seen some really difficult times. They are tired, they are exhausted, and are running on low steam. But this vaccine is giving them hope and there is now an air of excitement throughout this hospital.”
She added that it has been “a really scary time” for all NHS staff since March, with dozens of patients losing their lives with the virus at the hospital.
“I’m not going to lie and say it’s been easy. We have had a lot of staff who have been unwell, have had relatives unwell, and we’ve seen our hospital be overwhelmed with Covid patients.”
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But she said it is vital people maintain social distancing and hand hygiene and wear masks in the weeks and months ahead.
“We have got a long way to go to vaccinate our entire population and start returning to normal. This is just the beginning.”
Similarly Richard Johnson, a consultant surgeon at the Bridgend hospital, was one of the first to receive the vaccine on Tuesday morning.
“It was very straightforward and very quick. There was no pain and I feel fine after having it,” he said.
In the short term he admitted the vaccine will make little difference to infection rates until more people are immunised.
“This is the start of a very long road back to recovery. The wider we get people vaccinated the less Covid we’ll see, the less spread we’ll see, and there will be less demand on the hospital going forward,” he said.
Richard said the hospital had been incredibly busy in recent times, particularly as more “routine” NHS services are resuming.
“The staff have been working extremely hard. It has been very difficult trying to balance the care of patients with Covid and the care of patients without Covid because the NHS is still open for business for all diseases,” he said.
“There has been reduced capacity in the outpatient clinic because of social distancing and initially at the start of the pandemic we had long turnaround times between patients in theatres because of all the infection control procedures we had to follow.
“Things have improved but it will take a long time to catch up with the huge backlog that’s been building.”
In conclusion he reassured members of the public who may be in two minds about having the jab.
“This vaccine has been widely tested on many thousands of people. It has gone through all the appropriate safety checks. It has been through our national regulator.
“It has been shown to be safe and I would encourage everyone to have the vaccine when it’s their time.”
Rajiv Patel, 30, a clinical pharmacist at the Princess of Wales, has just recovered from Covid-19 so must wait 28 days before he can have the vaccine.
“The main symptoms I experienced was coughing, I had a bit of pain by my rib cage, night sweats, a fever, and a loss of taste and smell,” he said.
“I’m healthy, I’ve got no underlying health conditions. It just goes to show the virus doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anybody and a lot of people I know have had much worse outcomes than me.”
He added: “It’s the beginning of the end of this pandemic but we can’t take our eye off the ball just yet. We still need to adhere to hands, face, space. These things need to be practised as we go into the winter months.”
As a pharmacy department Rajiv said everyone had pulled together during this crisis.
“We have had some Covid positivity in our department and the virus has had repercussions for some medicine supplies shortages,” he said.
“We are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel now. It has gone through rigorous clinical trials and safety, efficacy and tolerability.”
In Swansea Bay University Health Board, which received its first batch of 975 Pfizer/BioNTech vaccinations, consultant cardiologist Geraint Jenkins was among the first 10 staff to be vaccinated.
He said: “It’s quite a privilege really. We have been waiting so long for this and it’s poignant that the same day as we are having the vaccine there’s a big outbreak of Covid and very high levels in Swansea and Neath.
“I urge people to be sensible, have as little contact with other people as you possibly can, and remember that regardless of what the rules say there’s no reason to take any risks that you don’t need to take.”
The vaccine rollout comes after a further 31 people in Wales were confirmed to have died with coronavirus, taking the total to 2,725.
Public Health Wales (PHW) data also showed 780 more people had tested positive for Covid-19, making 91,792 overall since the pandemic began.
Eight of the deaths were reported by Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board and four by Swansea Bay University Health Board.