SINCE the pandemic hit us last year, vaccines have gone from a laboratory concept to a healthcare success saving thousands of lives.
They allow us to imagine a more pleasantly ordinary life.
As of this writing, nearly half a million Covid-19 vaccines have been administered to residents of the NHS Highland region. Over 236,000 of us have had two jags: about nine in ten of us aged 18 and over.
Distributing vaccines to patients in Highland involved the most complicated distribution operation in the country.
While cities that are more populous than the Highlands as a whole have a handful of large vaccination centers, we have regularly distributed vaccines to around 100 sites.
Although the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer / BioNTech was the first available, most of our early supplies were the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine. This gave us a good start, but gradually our program became dominated by the use of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, which is more difficult to use.
It is delivered frozen to our three NHS Highland Vaccine Holding Centers (VHC), where it is stored at -70 ° C – a temperature somewhere between Antarctica and outer space.
The vials, each containing six doses, should be carefully thawed and then packaged for distribution in “gatekeepers” that keep them safely between 2 ° C and 8 ° C. This is done by our pharmacy technicians, who start early in the morning in cold rooms to make sure vaccines are ready to be distributed by our NHS drivers to anywhere clinics are held or to anyone who needs to bring them to patients.
In this way, the vaccines went to doctors ‘offices, hospital wards, nursing homes, villages, schools and church halls, as well as to patients’ homes. There have been complicated trips involving boats and an eye on the weather forecast. All this must be done in a total travel time of 12 hours from thawing: only the time spent in motion counts, so the vaccine (and our staff) can have a break.
With experience and data, we now know much more about the safe handling of this fragile vaccine; for example, that the thawed vaccine is stable for one month rather than five days in a final destination refrigerator, although it is still stored at ultra-low temperatures in our HCVs. It even has a Comirnaty brand name – try to say it without confusing it with one of our main geographic features.
The next steps in the immunization program involve tens of thousands of additional booster doses of Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine as well as immunization of 12 to 15 year olds.
Our pharmacy technicians will continue to spend long hours at refrigerator temperature to ensure that the vaccine is delivered as close to you as possible. Don’t pass up the opportunity.
n NHS Highland pharmacy technicians are highly trained and skilled. If you’re wondering what to do after school or are interested in a post-pandemic career in the NHS, check out www.careers.nhs.scot/careers/explore-our-careers/pharmacy
n Findlay Hickey is a Senior Pharmacist at NHS Highland.