With the rapid rise of coronavirus cases in the UK this month, the NHS has been tasked with ramping up COVID-19 booster jabs to increase protection against the virus this winter. Health professionals are looking to offer a third jab to all eligible adults by the end of December.
A total of 29,876,223 UK adults had received a third dose by 21 December, with more than 1m people jabbed on 18 December alone. Despite large numbers of people finding their way to vaccine sites, some GP teams have gone the extra mile to ensure patients can access boosters.
In north Wales, Dr Eilir Hughes and the Dwyfor Primary Care Cluster team have pulled out all the stops to ensure patients in rural areas don't miss out on a COVID-19 booster by running a local vaccine clinic.
Upon hearing that some patients were facing 100-mile round trips to get inoculated at one of the country's mass vaccination sites in Bangor, Dr Hughes moved to set up a vaccine site at his practice Ty Doctor in Gwynedd.
The team has been vaccinating patients at the surgery since early January - initially delivering AstraZeneca jabs during the week and then providing a Pfizer vaccine clinic at the weekend. He says they were the first primary care site in Wales to administer the Pfizer jab.
Dr Hughes says: ‘There are discrepancies between rural and urban areas when it comes to healthcare, and I asked myself during the campaign why people in rural areas were not having access to the vaccine - they should have access to it as well.
‘The nearest, dedicated mass vaccination centre to us is in Bangor, which for some people is 50 miles away, and not everyone can drive. So it was a huge thing for some patients for us to set up a local vaccination site.'
‘Many patients have been reassured to see that their practice is going way above the expectation and going the extra mile to make sure the community is as well protected as it can be, and we’ve taken them on the journey getting volunteers involved,' he adds.
With the focus switching to administer COVID-19 booster jabs amid the emergence of the Omicron variant, the surgery is continuing to support patients from rural areas by keeping the clinic open - and has been pushing hard to vaccinate 800 people a day.
‘There were several factors that worked in our favour to be able to deliver booster jabs, the first being that we had the space to do it which has been an issue for some with the 15-minute observation period and estates issue,’ he says.
‘We’ve also been at it for a year - that’s a huge amount of expertise and learning that we’ve done in how to administer the vaccine safely. So to ask vaccinators who haven’t been giving the Pfizer vaccine to all of a sudden start reaching our numbers is unfair, and probably not achievable. But we have shown what can be done and what the potential is if you have the space and you’ve been doing it for some time,’ he adds.
Primary care staff
Dr Hughes estimates that his team have helped to deliver around 25,000 vaccines since January, adding that people from urban areas were now travelling to get vaccinated at the clinic because of shorter waiting times.
He says the promise of a Christmas break was providing his team with the determination to finish the job and offer a third dose to everyone by the end of this week. He said: ‘Our drive is that we wanted our Christmas.
‘We’re exhausted and we want to make sure that staff have a break. That was our personal motivation - to have the decks clear because COVID-19 itself is going to cause a huge amount of pressure for us in January… so it’s nice to think that pressure will be out of the way.’
In Haringey, London, Morris House Group Practice and Haringey GP Federation worked together to set up a 24-hour COVID-19 vaccination clinic last week in a bid to increase access to jabs.
Low vaccine uptake
Dr Russell Hearn - the GP behind the ‘crazy idea’ - admits the clinic was actually operational for around 33 hours straight in total, with staff and volunteers digging deep to deliver the 'jabathon'. He says low uptakes rates in the area were the primary driver behind the initiative.
‘Our site is in Haringey, which is one of the lower uptake boroughs in London and our particular ward is the lowest in the area… our uptake is really low, even though we are one of the biggest vaccine deliverers in London, yet our local population haven’t had them.
‘We’ve been doing all sorts of things, including pop-up clinics in mosques, churches, food banks, community centres - and we’re supporting a vaccine bus several times a week to various locations, which have been doing up to 500 jabs a day.'
He adds: ‘After the government announced it wanted to offer all adults a booster, we were looking at ways of increasing capacity last week. We looked for other venues, but other sites were busy, so we looked to extend our hours at the practice vaccination clinic.
Improving vaccine access
‘Primarily we wanted to offer vaccines to people who may struggle to get there during work hours, so shift workers, police officers, emergency workers and restaurant staff - and we essentially thought that if we were going to jab until 12pm and open at 6am the next morning, why not go all night through and see who comes in.’
Staffed with student volunteers from Kings Medical School and other institutions, Dr Hearn says the team was able to deliver over 4,500 vaccines during the session - around 90% were boosters, but hundreds of first doses were also administered. In total, 150,000 vaccines were given during the week.
He says: ‘A lot of people came with stories about not having been able to get to a centre, or saying the only time they could book was January - some even said 3am jabs seemed like a good idea. 35% of the 4,500 vaccines were given out-of-hours, so that was the demand overnight.
‘I wouldn’t necessarily encourage others to do it or say that we are going to do it again - I think we hit the sweet spot. A lot of people who got boosters had them last week, so it worked at this time and we reached a target we otherwise wouldn’t have got.’
Dr Hearn adds the site is also offering vaccine advice appointments to people who are unsure about getting vaccinated, where they can talk to a vaccinator or clinical lead to discuss medical problems or concerns.