'All hands are on deck': Moving heaven and earth for fast vaccine rollout

21 February 2021 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON and ZIMASA MATIWANE
Glenda Gray, left, and Linda-Gail Bekker carrying the first dose of vaccine through Khayelitsha Hospital.
Glenda Gray, left, and Linda-Gail Bekker carrying the first dose of vaccine through Khayelitsha Hospital.
Image: File photo

When health-care workers lined up for the first Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccinations this week, it was an emotional moment for them - and for the team that worked long hours and gave their all to fast-track delivery of the life-saving shots.

"Wednesday was D-day and the team moved heaven and earth to get health-care workers vaccinated," said professor Glenda Gray, co-leader of the Johnson & Johnson study team that ensured rapid delivery of the vaccines.

The team knew at the end of January the vaccine was needed. "Literally 17 days later it was in people's arms," said Gray, who watched on Thursday as health workers at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital got their jabs of the vaccine.

"It was very moving to see how people in the hospital have embraced being vaccinated. They were queueing up. Some people were sobbing. Everybody has been affected by Covid."

She said it was a huge relief to see the aircraft carrying the vaccines land at about 10.30pm on Tuesday.

"It was quite emotional. We understood we were at the beginning of something profound," Gray said. "Everybody showed a willingness to go beyond the call of duty to help."

The warehouse staff handling the packing stayed up all night, and research staff at some sites were ready at 3am for the vaccines to arrive and be administered.

Gray has hardly slept or had time to eat since the vaccines arrived, like other members of the J&J study team.

"They have worked 24/7 and are such a dedicated group. There are fewer on the team than the fingers on my hands. I want to give a shout out to them," she said.

"Every hour there is a crisis which needs attending to. All hands are on deck."

She said people who had participated as volunteers in vaccine trials would be told whether they had received actual vaccines or placebos.

"Health-care workers can then decide if they want to take an additional jab."

Health minister Zweli Mkhize told the Sunday Times that while there had been some teething problems with the rollout, "the greatest achievement is that it happened".

"The last wave [of Covid infections] was too devastating," he said.

"We needed to start earlier than we had initially thought. We managed to start in February and it has filled us with a lot of pride that we are able to . give our health-care workers additional protection."

As of Friday, 461,265 people had registered with the electronic vaccination data system.

Mkhize said the department wanted to ramp up the vaccination rate to 6,000 a day, and had identified several areas where the process could be improved.

These included the vaccination data system, general communication and getting unions and managers to work together "so we know who needs to be where at what time, because in some instances people will go to want to be vaccinated and it is not their turn".

He said Mpumalanga and Limpopo had struggled with logistics.


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