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Top Highland pharmacist Findlay Hickey describes the massive challenge delivering Covid jags in north

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A Covid jag being given.
A Covid jag being given.

SINCE the pandemic burst upon us last year, vaccines have gone from a laboratory concept to a healthcare success that are saving thousands of lives.

They are allowing us to imagine a life more pleasantly ordinary.

As I write this, almost half a million Covid-19 vaccines have been administered to people in NHS Highland’s area. Over 236,000 of us have had two jags: roughly nine in every 10 of us aged 18 and over.

Getting vaccines to patients in Highland has involved the most complicated distribution operation in the country.

Whereas cities with larger populations than the Highlands as a whole have a handful of large vaccination centres, we have distributed vaccines on a regular basis to about 100 sites.

Although, the vaccine made by Pfizer/BioNTech was the first available, most of our early supply was the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. That gave us a much-needed flying start but, progressively, our programme has become dominated by use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is more difficult to use.

It is delivered deep frozen to our three NHS Highland Vaccine Holding Centres (VHC), where it is stored at -70°C – a temperature somewhere between the Antarctic and Outer Space.

Vials, each containing six doses, must be carefully thawed and then packed for distribution in “porters” that keep them safely between 2°C and 8°C. This is done by our pharmacy technicians, who have early morning starts in cold rooms to ensure that vaccines are ready for our NHS drivers to distribute to wherever clinics are being held or to whoever needs to take them onwards to patients.

In this way vaccines have gone to medical practices, hospital departments, care homes, village, school and church halls, and patients’ homes. There have been complicated journeys involving boats and an eye on the weather forecast. All of this must be done within a total journey time of 12 hours from thawing: only the time spent in motion counts, so the vaccine (and our staff) can have a breather.

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 a month rather than five days in a final destination fridge, although it is still be stored at ultra-low temperatures in our VHCs. It even has a brand name Comirnaty – try saying that without confusing it with one of our major geographical features.

The next stages of the vaccination programme involve tens of thousands more booster doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as well as vaccination of 12 to 15 year olds.

Our pharmacy technicians will continue to put in long hours in fridge temperatures to make sure the vaccine is delivered as close to you as possible. Don’t pass up the opportunity.

n NHS Highland’s pharmacy technicians are highly trained and skilled. If you’re wondering what to do after school or if you’re interested in a post-pandemic career in the NHS, have a look at www.careers.nhs.scot/careers/explore-our-careers/pharmacy

n Findlay Hickey is a principal pharmacist at NHS Highland.

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