Northern Ireland news

Covid vaccinations for over-80s due to begin on January 4

The Pfizer vaccine offers 90 per cent protection and is expected to be delivered as early as next month to 'at risk' groups pending approval
Seanín Graham

COVID vaccinations for over-80s not living in care homes are due to begin on January 4 as part of a massive programme delivered by GPs across Northern Ireland.

Correspondence seen by The Irish News reveals that leisure centres are among venues proposed for the scheme, with patients requiring "15 minutes of direct observation" after receiving the jab.

Space and medication for "managing reactions including anaphylaxis" will also be needed, according to the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) letter sent to GP practices on Thursday.

It will not be possible to deliver the vaccine to patients in cars.

While the two main coronavirus vaccines are still awaiting approval, First Minister Arlene Foster has confirmed a phased roll-out is planned to begin next month.

Vulnerable care home residents and staff, along with frontline healthccare workers, are among the initial target groups.

GPs will be central to the programme's roll-out, with Northern Ireland "relying" on them along with health trusts to "urgently" begin administering the doses once the drugs are licensed, according to the letter.

HSCB's head of general medical services, Dr Margaret O'Brien, wrote that she is aware the initiative is a "major undertaking" by practices to "help bring the pandemic under control", adding that "extra fees" and support are being negotiated with the Department of Health.

"Whilst clarity is still required on a number of issues including the date of approval and delivery of the vaccine, the exact storage requirements and priority groups, the situation is developing at pace and there is a need to plan for the earliest possible commencement of the vaccination programme," Dr O'Brien stated.

"We do however have enough information to be able to start to plan for a Covid-19 vaccination programme. I am therefore asking practices to assume the GP vaccination programme will begin from 4 January."

Concerns about cold storage of drugs - the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70 Celsius - and the fact it has to be used within four days of delivery have been raised.

One GP source described its delivery as a "logistical nightmare".

The Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine doesn't require freezing storage.

However, both drugs require two doses, given 28 days apart.

"We have worked out it's more than 240 hours to deliver the 975-pack the Pfizer doses come in," the GP said.

"We will need to pack the vaccine in dry ice, you can't use an ordinary fridge or freezer. We will have to deliver 975 vaccines in four days. Leisure centres will no doubt be closed in January as we prepare for another surge so they will provide the best space."

GP surgeries are being advised by the HSCB to "run a search" to identify all patients aged 80 or over on January 1 2021 to allow planning "for the first cohort of patients".

They will also be asked to vaccinate the over-65s and "clinically vulnerable" people - those who normally receive the winter flu jab - in what is described as an "enhanced service".

It is noted the rollout of the programme for these priority groups "will have to be phased in line with vaccine availability".

Doctors are also urged to complete the winter flu jab vaccination programme by the end of next month.

Only registered healthcare professionals will be allowed to administer the Covid-19 vaccine.

"Health care assistants could be used for the patient observation or other support roles," the letter adds.

Northern Ireland is expected to receive around 4 million vaccine doses.

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