Cara O’Neill is head of Health and Well-being in CHO 1.

‘The ball is rolling...’ on vaccines

On the one hand there is a pandemic. On the other is an infodemic. The staff manning the vaccine centres in Cavan and Monaghan often find them somewhere betwixt the two.

At the Hotel Kilmore in Cavan Town last Friday afternoon, the queue of people was out the door of the Country Club. Masked staff wearing navy blue scrubs scuttle what seems indiscriminately in and out of doors to the venue once famed for hosting some of the most famous names in Irish entertainment.

The braid of people moves quickly, shuffling in metres apart. Some attending have come dressed in what appears their ‘Sunday Best’. The weather is warm and the prevailing mood is one of reserved jubilation.

Cara O’Neill is head of Health and Well-being in CHO 1. She’s had a key role overseeing and managing the roll-out of the regional Covid vaccination programme, as well as the set up of local delivery centres.

The Tyrone native has held a number of senior roles within the HSE over a 25-year plus career. The latest, she admits, has been one of her most challenging.

“At the end of the year last year, we knew we had a significant challenge around getting this vaccination programme rolled out,” reflects Ms O’Neill of the job at hand.

Under her management, the Cavan and Monaghan vaccination centre development was led by Ann-Marie Campbell, director of nursing, Lisdarn unit and the project team members are Celine Croarkin, Health and Wellbeing; Monica McCrory, Health Promotion and Therese Cunningham, Human Resources.

In terms of operation, the Cavan and Monaghan vaccination sites are managed in tiers. First and foremost is Aisling Duffy as manager, followed by her team of clinical leads, pharmacists looking after vaccine stewardship, trained vaccinators, and a company of admin, wellness-checkers, as well as security ensuring the flow of people is orderly and adhering to social distancing.

It’s a seven-day service, with vaccinations delivered, depending on supply, between the hours of 9am and 5.30pm. The HSE’s vaccine portal has been open for appointments for people between 65 and 69 years since mid-April, and on the day the Celt arrives, it was extended to those aged 60-64 years.

The vaccine being offered is AstraZeneca, approved for use both by the European Medicines Agency and the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC).

People arriving are asked to produce appointment confirmation, a PPS number and Eircode, as well as a mobile phone number or email address, the same details used to register in the first instance. A photo ID is also required.

It’s less than 48 hours fully open and already there has been a “huge response”. Ms O’Neill hasn’t got exact numbers but what she can say with certainty is the Cavan centre has given out appointments for “most” of those who’ve registered to date.

“It is busy and I’d expect it to get busier,” says Ms O’Neill of the centre, which has 10 booths and capacity to deliver 1,000 jabs per day. “There has been a huge investment in terms of people’s training over the last number of weeks.”

Ms O’Neill denies any push back against receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, after its use was temporarily suspended amid concerns over extremely rare incidents of blood clotting.

“There is only AstraZeneca, there is not a choice of vaccine,” Ms O’Neill corrects. “You can’t just turn up and say I want Moderna or Pfizer, because we don’t actually have any other vaccine here.”

She urges if people are hesitant about receiving a vaccine, to “get informed” by visiting the HSE website or speaking with relevant health officials. “There is absolutely a lot of misinformation out there,” she fumes.

Despite perceived fears, Ms O’Neill reassures that AstraZeneca is a “good vaccine” with a high rate of efficacy.

She adds the vaccine schedule currently in place has “worked well”. It will remain “under review” as much during the 15 months of this pandemic has evolved.

The potential for an outbreak within the centre itself is mitigated - an isolation room has been established - and Ms O’Neill reiterates what the HSE has already stressed: anyone with potential Covid symptoms should not attend.

“One major positive is the majority of our vulnerable groups have been vaccinated. That is a really good news story,” adds Ms O’Neill. “At this point it’s hard to know really what the end date is going to be, but really, we’re here and are going to vaccinate for as long as possible. It is absolutely a rolling ball game. The only impediment around this is the supply of vaccine.”

‘Game-changer’

If there is one development in the wings it’s if and when the single-dose J&J vaccine will come available. Seen by many as key to Ireland’s vaccine effort going forward, over 600,000 doses are due to arrive up to the end of the June. Almost 15,000 doses have already arrived but have yet to be administered.

The potential “game-changer” J&J vaccine as Ms O’Neill calls it, could influence whether Ireland increases the gap between the first and second doses of mRNA vaccines offered by Pfizer and Moderna.

“People have waited so long for this day,” enthuses Ms O’Neill of those queuing outside.

She tempers that elation by warning people they still need to “keep up their guard”.

“This is only the first dose, so we’d ask that people continue to do what they’re doing around the public health guidelines. Wear their face covering, sanitise their hands, and socially distance, because they’re not fully protected yet.”

People can register for vaccinations online, or alternatively can call HSE Live on 1850 241 850 for assistance with the registration process. Once registered people will get an appointment within three to seven days via electronic message. Registration meanwhile remains open for people aged 65-69 years.

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