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Inside one of Canada’s new COVID-19 vaccination clinics

TORONTO — At Toronto’s University Health Network, there is now a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, where nearly 300 health-care workers were booked on Tuesday to get their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The clinic services five hospitals and long-term care facilities, including the one that personal support worker Charlie Speechley works at.

“It’s just been a long haul,” Speechley told CTV News. He said that the vaccine rollout was “exciting,” representing “the beginning of the end.”

“The end is now in sight,” he said.

This week, the first shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Canada, ready to be doled out to health-care workers and others deemed high-priority.

The arrival of the vaccine brings hope, but a mass vaccine rollout takes a lot of choreography, particularly when the vaccine needs two doses to be effective, like the Pfizer vaccine.

The vaccination clinic is like a flu clinic on steroids, with extra steps to register and administer the inoculation — uncharted territory, according to the clinic organizer.

There are numerous challenges and questions, Leanna Graham told CTV News.

“How do they register, how do they screen, how do we upload the information,” Graham said. “The logistics around hiring staff for these clinics — all the infection control considerations.”

Graham is the director of Professional Practice & Policy at UHN, and she said this is “the first time we’ve ever done anything like this.”

“It’s been a tremendous amount of work,” she said, adding that they only put together a team to plan out how the vaccination clinic would function around a week ago.

Down the hall, the vaccines are prepared. The frozen vials are thawed out for half an hour, diluted with saline, and drawn up in a syringe.

Doses are registered with an expiration time, since they must be used within six hours of thawing. After that point, they’re no longer effective.

Jin Hyeun Huh, senior director of pharmacy at UHN, told CTV News that it’s a “daunting task.”

“This is not just this week, it will go on for pretty much the whole year of 2021,” he said.

The vaccine rollout has taken a huge amount of co-ordination, he pointed out, “not only within the hospital, but through the Ministry of Public Health Agencies, so the collaboration has been wonderful.

“Without that, I don’t think we would have made it.”

The clinic will be vaccinating a few hundred people each day, a number determined by how fast new batches of doses can be prepared and how many people can safely attend the clinic in a day.

Surveys show one third of Canadians are nervous about getting a shot, but that’s not the case here.

“I’m happy to get it, to be one of the first to get it,” Speechley said. The staff at his long-term care facility were asked if they were willing to take the plunge as some of the first recipients of the vaccine, and he “jumped on that.”

At his workplace, staff managed to keep residents safe from the virus, but several workers tested positive. At the beginning of the pandemic, the sense of urgency helped him stay functioning through “many shifts in a row,” but it’s been “tough,” he said.

“You can see it, […] the fatigue is there.”

Prashanthi Pidikiti, a physiotherapist at a long-term care facility, was also excited to get the vaccine. She’s doing this in part for herself, but mostly for others.

“If I can get some protection [for] myself and for the rest of the staff, for my colleagues, and also for the residents, then it would be great,” she said. “So that’s why I’m here.”

While some personal support workers are receiving the vaccine, others are also signing up to help deliver it. Robinah Kusiima, who works in long-term care, told CTV News she is now helping to administer the vaccine, because she feels it is critical work.

“I saw people dying in various nursing homes,” she said. “So I decided since the vaccine has come, let me be a part of it.”

After the jab, recipients are asked to wait for 15 minutes. As they leave, they get sheets confirming their vaccination and showing them where to call if they experience side-effects like severe fever.

The most important thing they receive before they leave the clinic? A date for dose number two.

“We have created a scheduling system that automatically generates a second appointment,” Graham said. “It’s 21 days after their first appointment.”

After someone receives their first dose, their second dose is kept in the freezer for safekeeping, rather than using up all of the supply at once and relying on further shipments for the second doses.

“We were given 3,000 doses, and we took a half of those, 1,500, and we’ll administer it over the next number of days and then the second 1,500 are saved in […] one of our deep freezer locations, and that will be administered again to the same recipients in three weeks,” Graham explained.

“So we have absolutely guaranteed that we have that second dose available for them.”

It’s a process that will be repeated many millions of times across the country as Canadians receive the vaccine that may help to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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