In the week before Christmas, as staff dropped like flies from their shifts due to COVID-19, and when all of our energy levels were well below zero, we were expected to deliver the COVID-19 vaccination programme while keeping the GP practice running as normal.
For the surgery, Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre, that meant co-ordinating a new programme administering the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. All we had been told was that the vaccines had to be kept at -70 °C and if we did not sign up to the scheme then our patients would be disadvantaged.
During an early morning meeting, in order to allow our GPs to continue with their daily activities, I put myself forward to lead the programme, not realising this would turn my world upside down. I found myself on a conference call on New Year’s Eve as the only pharmacist on a board coordinating the programme. The vaccine delivery was more complex than I could ever have imagined.
Five surgeries had to work together as one hub, as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine comes with so many complexities. Though daunting to begin with, I soon realised that everyone working on the hub had the same goal. It turned out to be an exceptional collaboration.
We managed to pull together a highly organised, efficient service. We run four ‘pods’ – vaccination booths – at each surgery from 8am to 8pm. We have just completed our third week of vaccination clinics. I have become fairly obsessed with ensuring that all our patients are vaccinated as quickly and safely as possible without disrupting the day-to-day running of the surgery.
My team are equally committed. Three of them call patients daily, while a volunteer completes the administration and a pharmacist handles side effects and reports them to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulation Authority (MHRA).
I collated a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine information page on our website to reduce the number of calls coming to our receptionists. I receive between 10 and 20 emails every day with new questions, which I use to update the page with answers. In addition, we send patients COVID-19 vaccine updates every week.
I have set up a system for driving patients in COVID-19 secure cars to the vaccination clinic every hour. On any week up to 16 of our staff members are working overtime at the COVID-19 hub.
A key part of my role was ensuring all our GPs, nurses, physiotherapists, and GP pharmacists were trained to deliver the vaccine. I found pharmacists were the most skilled at drawing up vaccines. Whenever there is a backlog of patients, we call in the pharmacists to speed up the process.
Setting up the clinic feels like a lifetime achievement. I feel like I have been part of history and can look forward to seeing the end of this pandemic. I urge all pharmacists to get involved by volunteering in the programme or by providing the service within their community settings where possible.
I welcome the news that pharmacies all over England have started administering the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. I believe it is essential for community pharmacists to be involved in the vaccine rollout to make it accessible to all.
Shilpa Patel is lead pharmacist and partner at Brighton Health and Wellbeing Centre