FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2021 - 12:00am

“Dear Ms Pedrosa, You have been invited to book your COVID-19 vaccinations” read the SMS text from my GP Surgery. I knew the UK’s vaccination program was going well but I wasn’t expecting to be invited so soon.

The day I booked the appointment for my first dose was also the day it was announced that more than 15 million people in the UK have had their first dose. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced that the vaccine rollout program had entered a new phase, now that the most vulnerable groups had all been offered a jab.

Only Israel and the UAE, among larger countries, have inoculated more per head of the population. UK authorities opted for a “risk pyramid” model in its rollout plan. The top four priority groups are older care home residents and relevant care staff; people aged 80-plus and frontline health and care staff; those aged 75 and over; and those aged 70 and over and people who are clinically extremely vulnerable. They and everyone else get their vaccinations free through the National Health Service.

My SMS invitation linked to a very simple online booking procedure that is one of the end results of planning that began back in the summer. The head of the NHS decided not to create a whole new system when he was tasked with delivering the UK’s biggest ever mass inoculation campaign. Instead, Sir Simon Stevens used existing groups of GPs, known as primary care networks, which each cover up to 50,000 patients, as the main conduit. Each network then had to commit to vaccinating for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

I could choose any 30-minute slot over the weekend at a health care center just round the corner from my home. As I arrived outside, my name and date of birth was checked off a list and I joined the queue of people, safely distanced, masked and provided with hand sanitizer. We were given a few sheets of paper that answered frequently asked questions about the vaccination that we were to keep, as well as a form with a couple of basic details that we showed as we entered the building itself.

Around 1,500 vaccination centers have been established in England, including some in football stadiums and other large venues, staffed by 30,000 NHS workers and as many as 100,000 volunteers. Some decisions were devolved, for example primary care networks could chose their own jabbing sites, but for others the NHS could compel action through national orders.

At my local vaccination site, there seemed to be three rooms where every person was asked standard questions about their health and briefed about the vaccination itself. I didn’t have any questions about the vaccine myself, but I got the sense that this was my opportunity if I’d had any. The doctor who administered the vaccination itself was cheerful and efficient and I was in and out within a couple of minutes.

After getting the jab itself, I was sent to another desk where I was given a card to remind me when and where I got the vaccination and what kind it was on the top half, the bottom half is left to be completed for the second jab.

I received a dose of the Pfizer/Biontech version, though I think it would have been equally likely that I could have arrived on a day when the AstraZeneca vaccination was being administered. Israel’s largest health care provider reported a 94 percent drop in symptomatic COVID-19 infections among 600,000 people who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine compared to those who had not received the vaccine. It’s the country’s biggest study to date and also found the same group was also 92 percent less likely to develop severe illness from the virus.

The UK government has been criticized for problems in other COVID-19 programs, including the highly centralized test and trace system, which was delivered by outsourcing companies and had apparently largely ignored expertise on the ground. In the end, Asia provided inspiration, for the overwhelming success of the vaccination program, according to the former UK health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said the UK “really did learn the lessons from SARS and MERS when it came to the importance of the vaccine.”

Key factors in the success have had to do with the earliness of planning, which began long before it was even clear whether any of the vaccines being developed at historic speed would even be approved by regulators.

It’s also been important that the NHS got support from the military and private sector. About 50 military logistics experts set up at the NHS headquarters to help with co-ordinating the distribution of vaccination centers.

A US data analytics company, Palantir, was contracted to provide a vaccine supply database back in November. Each vaccine center set up outside GP practices or hospitals needs more than 400 items of equipment to work: from needles to fridges and even resuscitation equipment. Palantir’s system brings together warehouse inventories and information about patients and the readiness of trained staff. The database also keeps a running total of vaccinations to give the NHS instant progress reports.

For me, it was quite an odd experience in the sense that having lived through the whole process of the emergence of the coronavirus, the pandemic and the global effort to research and manage it, I have never felt so aware of all the various parts that had to fall into place to culminate in that moment when the syringe needle broke my skin, sank into the muscle and delivered that serum. I remembered how Filipina nurse May Parsons had administered the very first vaccine in the program in December and what a breakthrough it was and continues to be.

It’s been a massive collective effort on the part of scientists, pharmaceutical companies and public health officials around the world who have worked around the clock to develop the serum, as well as all the trials that it had to go through. What about all the doctors, nurses and health care workers? The more than 108 million confirmed cases, including more than 2.3 million deaths, around the world have been the driving force that willed the world into action.

Now the task is to get the vaccine to people right around the world.

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