Northern Ireland news

'Fragility' of Covid booster doses could impact on rollout in drive-throughs

Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA's GP committee
Seanín Graham

FRUSTRATION has been expressed by a doctors' union that drive-through clinics may not be suitable to roll out Covid booster jabs due to the "fragility" of vaccines.

Instead, council leisure centres, church halls and bigger venues are among options being explored as GPs gear up for the mass vaccination of almost one million people with a third Covid shot along with a winter flu jab.

Earlier this week the British Medical Association (BMA) GP committee chair Dr Alan Stout told The Irish News his own practice along with others were planning to use a drive-through to administer doses and extensive "pre-preparing" had gone on behind-the-scenes in recent months.

However, at a meeting with Department of Health chiefs, the union was informed the option may not work for the Pfizer vaccine.

In a memo to BMA members, Mr Stout stated: "Pfizer is still classed as a 'fragile' vaccine which does affect movement.

"It will be thawed in (a location in Northern Ireland) and then distributed in a ready to use state, but needs to be used within 28 days.

"The packs are big (over 1000 doses), but they are arranging a 'pack down' facility to allow smaller packs as won't be able to share packs between practices...Frustratingly, it says that it is not suitable for drive through clinics."

The first Covid boosters were given to NHS staff in England and Wales on Thursday with hopes the mass rollout will begin in Northern Ireland in coming weeks.

Over-50s and younger adults with certain health conditions will be among those eligible.

Dr Stout told The Irish News they hope to vaccinate the majority of the elderly and vulnerable with both the booster and the flu jab at the same time.

However, due to the six-month minimum gap required between a person's second Covid dose and the third shot, he noted it may not be possible for everyone to get both flu jab and booster shots together.

The BMA chief said while drive through clinics "hadn't been ruled out completely" there were "cautions around the transport and fragility" of Pfizer.

"It might still be possible, we're looking into it but the alternative are church halls or council leisure centres - any big building," he said.

"We hope a significant proportion of people will get their vaccine at the same time.

"It's the six-month interval from the second dose to the booster dose that's the factor.

"The second doses given towards the end of March were to the most vulnerable - the over 70s/80s and extremely clinically vulnerable - so the key bit is that it's those most at risk will receive both together.

"But we don't want to delay the flu jab for too long - we want to be completing them at the end of November by the latest and that means it will be too early for some people. So they'll get them separately.

"Trusts have been working frantically and they will be going out to care homes in coming weeks. The GP splurge will from early October onwards."

Meanwhile, health minister Robin Swann confirmed the winter flu vaccine programme will be extended to all secondary school children from years 8 to year 12.

Those aged 50 to 64 will also be eligible to receive the jab again this year.

Chief Medical Officer Prof Sir Michael McBride warned however that the population's immunity against flu is lower due to the dramatic drop in infections last year and urged people to get jabbed.

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