Overcoming the logistical nightmare behind the biggest vaccination program in history

Dr Erica Tong carefully opens the packaging. She takes out the syringe, jabs it into the tiny vial and draws out 0.3 millilitres of liquid.

She has been practising with colleagues at The Alfred for this historic moment for months, in preparation for the biggest, and most tedious, vaccination program in history.

And from Monday morning, about 50 Alfred healthcare workers will be among the first inoculated in what Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley last week said was “the beginning of the end of the pandemic”.

Dr Erica Tong practises preparing the coronavirus vaccine. Her staff at The Alfred have been “simulating everything” ahead of the rollout.Credit:Penny Stephens

The first batch of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine was trucked to Victorian hospitals on Sunday afternoon in readiness for vaccinations to begin.

“Everyone’s been preparing for quite some time, so I think [there’s a general sense of] excitement that it’s finally here,” said Dr Tong, The Alfred’s deputy director of pharmacy.

“We’ve been simulating everything from when the vaccine arrives to loading it into the freezer … so the end-to-end process, including reconstituting with vials of saline, drawing up, labelling, and there’s been full simulation in our [vaccination] clinic space as well that the pharmacists have been involved in and how that will run.”

The Pfizer vaccine is the first to be rolled out in Australia, but it poses significant logistical challenges – and with the liquid gold in short supply, healthcare providers are loath to waste any doses.

Vials of Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept at minus 70 degrees, and its handling is a time-sensitive process.

Staff have only five minutes between opening the lids of the “thermal shippers” filled with the vaccine and storing the vials in the ultra-cold freezers. Removing the vials needed for that day must be done within three minutes.

“It needs to be very precise to ensure there are no temperature breaches,” Dr Tong said.

Her team at The Alfred has been timing every step of the process; at first they were relying on their phones but now they have a stopwatch attached to the ultra-cold freezer.

Dr Sumi Bhaskaran, from Monash Health, will be among the first Victorians vaccinated.Credit:Penny Stephens

The head of Monash Health’s general medicine unit, Sumi Bhaskaran, will get the jab on Monday and says Australia has come a long way since last year, when footage of Italian and American hospitals overrun with coronavirus patients hit our screens.

“Thinking about the last 12 months, I divide myself into three stages,” Dr Bhaskaran said. “The first stage is around this time last year when we started seeing reports from overseas about hospitals being overrun, and we hadn’t started really experiencing any of that … from a personal point of view that caused a lot of anxiety.

“And then as the head of the unit my thinking very quickly changed to my staff and how do I make sure we protect our staff to minimise exposure.

“And then we realised the challenges of having to manage patients in an environment where we have to isolate them, and we’re dressed in personal protective equipment … and making sure we’re looking after everyone’s wellbeing and mental health as well.”

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