First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The date is 20 May and the number in Professor Richard Cooke’s head is 700. It’s the target he has in mind for Covid-19 vaccinations at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg for the day.
“We started with 72 vaccinations done on Monday. We more than doubled that to 176 on Tuesday and on Wednesday we more than doubled that to 384, so I’m hoping we double that number again today,” he says.
Cooke’s day job is the head of the family medicine and primary care department at Wits University, but he’s volunteered to head the government’s vaccination campaign at the Soweto hospital.
It’s essentially a continuation for him, picking up where the Sisonke trial, a vaccination programme that targeted healthcare workers, left off.
In Phase 2 of the roll-out, those in the queues and seated in a marquee at the hospital are older people.
“Older people, especially those who are frail, are a little slower so we don’t get through numbers as quickly and we explain things more carefully, but we’re getting on with it,” Cooke says.
He is determined to make the older people feel welcome, personally greeting each group who are getting ready for the 14 vaccinators administering jabs inside a hall. He explains that the Pfizer shots will require a follow-up jab. He takes questions and keeps the energy up, understanding that questions answered, some humour and consistent, clear messaging counts in a time of uncertainty and when mass vaccination of adults is novel – even for the oldest person in the room.
Some go to the doctor with questions about chronic medication, clots or permission for a quick dash to the toilet.
“I am a family medicine doctor after all. I try to keep people healthy,” he says, laughing that he’s up to four coffees a day, ironing out roll-out hiccups while pushing to scale up.
Cooke admits that watching the public coming in for vaccinations finally feels like hope. He was clinical lead at the Nasrec Field Hospital during the first and second waves of Covid-19.
“This does feel amazing. I guess there was a lot of negativity when you are dealing with people who are very sick, but this feels light. There is positivity,” he says.
Also feeling positive is Dimakatso Mohale, who’s 73 years old and lives in nearby Naturena. “I have no worries. I was so happy when I got the SMS at 5.30pm yesterday to come to get vaccinated,” she says.
Helping people navigate the snaking queue of plastic chairs inside the marquee is Stella Lekoane. She’s a pharmacy assistant employed at Bheki Mlangeni District Hospital in Jabulani, Johannesburg. She has been deployed to help at the Chris Hani vaccination site.
“Papa, where’s your ID?” she asks someone gently, while she takes another person to a seat, guiding him by the elbow. “These are our parents. We have to help them. I’m happy that they are our priority now,” she says.
Those in the marquee are just minutes from entering the vaccine hall. The long wait for a vaccine will finally be over for them.
Inside, 14 stations have been set up. At full capacity, it will hold 24 stations. More vaccinators are still needed and volunteers, such as the staff from breast cancer awareness NGO Pink Drive, are stepping up.
The Pink Drive team arrives to be vaccinated so they, in turn, can start vaccinating others and help get closer to the national target of 300,000 people a day.
Merne Ogle from Pink Drive admits she had mixed feelings about being vaccinated.
“I was scared about what I was putting into my body. But, now that I’ve got it, I will convince my husband and my mother-in-law that they need to get vaccinated too because it’s about saving lives,” she says. Before each round of patients enters the hall, a nursing sister brings a newly filled syringe to each vaccination station. The vaccines syringes are prepared in a backroom in the hall, drawn from vials that hold six doses each.
Syringes are prepared on demand to reduce wastage. The Pfizer vaccines are temperature sensitive. They’re stored at ultra-cold temperatures until they are thawed in stages. They only last about a month in a standard fridge at a temperature ready for use.
Patients’ IDs and details are manually and electronically recorded on an electronic tablet at each station. Once vaccinated, patients are handed a credit card-sized vaccination card and it’s all done.
The mood in the hall is about getting on with business, but there’s still time for the odd joke. Nurses rib some male patients that they’re way slower than their wives to pull back layers of coats and jerseys to expose a bicep for injecting.
But, in the end, no one is left behind. Minutes later, everyone is off for a compulsory 15-minute wait to watch for side effects.
It’s Simphiwe Mbatha who gives the final message: “Congratulations and don’t forget to tell your friends and family to register,” says the enrolled nurse from Lilian Ngoyi Community Clinic.
She answers outstanding questions then invites people to pose at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital selfie frame before they leave.
There is reason to “say cheese” for Robert Shelley and Thembi Mazibuko, who waited together throughout the morning and were vaccinated together.
Shelley buys them both cappuccinos at the coffee stand outside the vaccination site.
Shelley lives in Bedfordview and it’s his first visit to Chris Hani. He says he took a chance after hearing that the vaccination site could be relatively empty during this first week.
“My brother died of Covid in January and I was got very sick from Covid so I was more than ready to get the vaccine,” he says.
Mazibuko is a live-in domestic worker in Hyde Park. She’s was also eager to be vaccinated. She shares condolences on hearing of Shelley’s loss. She calls him “my son” because he’s five years younger and he calls her “my friend”. They sip their coffees; they smile. It’s been a good morning. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
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