Airport lounge transformed into vaccine hub as vials en route

An international departure lounge at Melbourne Airport has been stripped of its furniture and transformed into a vaccination hub, heralding what is hoped will be the first step towards a return to “normal” life as Victoria’s first coronavirus vaccines are administered from Monday.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is expected to be trucked to Sunshine Hospital, Austin Hospital and other sites around Victoria on Sunday morning, packed in dry ice, in readiness for the first vaccinations to begin.

Professor Rhonda Stuart at the vaccination hub at Monash Medical Centre.

First in line will be the vaccinators: the many health workers who have been trained to administer the vaccine.

Monash Health medical director for infection prevention Professor Rhonda Stuart said staff would meet the trucks carrying the special delivery into Monash Medical Centre in Clayton and transport the boxes of vaccine to two empty ultra-low-temperature freezers, set at minus 70 degrees, inside the hospital.

“The freezers are all empty, switched on and they’re ready to go,” Professor Stuart said.

In one of the the biggest mass logistical operations in the health sector in recent history, hotel quarantine and airport workers will be the first Victorians to be vaccinated for COVID-19 when the Pfizer rollout begins.

From Monday, it’s expected that about 300 airline flight crew, customs workers, cargo handlers and other airport workers will receive the vaccine each day at the new vaccination hub at Melbourne Airport, run by Western Health.

Over the past week all the chairs have been removed from the international departure lounge, which had been all but abandoned by travellers due to the pandemic, to make way for the vaccine hub.

Ten cubicles have been set up so 10 people can be vaccinated at any one time. There is also a dedicated reception, observation area and pharmacy on-site.

“In seven days, we’ve gone from a departure lounge to quite a state-of-the-art vaccination hub,” said Kylie Roper, manager of the new vaccination unit.

Rachel Hogben, nurse manager of the intensive care unit at Monash Medical Centre, will be one of the first to get the vaccine. On Friday they went through a dry run of the procedure.Credit:David Caird/Pool image

Victoria will initially receive 11,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine every week to vaccinate 170,000 frontline workers including staff working in the state’s troubled hotel quarantine system.

“This is a very important milestone – arguably the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said on Friday.

“But that does not mitigate the need for us to continue all of the measures that we have in place. Social distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitising. All of these measures will remain important for some time yet.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will get his jab from his local doctor when it’s his turn.

“I’m very keen to see frontline workers get it, and those that are at the highest risk,” Mr Andrews said on Friday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would receive the Pfizer vaccine “very, very soon”, during the first stages of the rollout.

Other political leaders, including federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, will wait for the AstraZeneca vaccine, expected to be available from March.

Pfizer vaccination hubs have been set up by Austin Health, Monash Health and Western Health, who are leading efforts to deliver the initial vaccines to Victoria’s most at-risk workers and vulnerable populations, including those living in aged care homes.

Monash Health has the capacity to store about 180,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which was the first COVID-19 vaccine to get regulatory approval in Australia. Vials of Pfizer must be kept at minus 70 degrees.

Professor Stuart estimates that more than 100 healthcare workers, along with dozens of aged care residents, will be vaccinated on Monday.

The vaccinations of hotel quarantine and other workers will be staggered to ensure masses of staff are not off work sick at the same time, amid warnings from the Therapeutic Goods Administration – which last week approved use of the Pfizer vaccine in Australia – that it may come with some short-term side-effects.

A Pfizer hub strictly for healthcare workers has been set up at the Austin Hospital, with plans to vaccinate more than 10,000 people in the coming months.

Western Health is overseeing hospital vaccinations hubs at Sunshine Hospital, and at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Parkville.

“We are expecting the vaccine to arrive at the Sunshine Hospital on Sunday … and then we will transport [a small amount] early Monday to the airport” said Shane Crowe, Western Health’s executive director of nursing and midwifery .

Healthcare workers in coronavirus wards, intensive care units and emergency departments, as well as in laboratories handling COVID-19 swabs and screening clinics, will all begin being vaccinated on Monday morning.

Once the vaccine is taken out of an ultra-cold freezer it can be thawed and stored for up to five days in an ordinary fridge, meaning authorities will have to move quickly to administer all available doses among priority groups.

”When we take the vial out of the ordinary vaccine fridge, we have to prepare it and use it within six hours,” Professor Stuart said. “So we have strict procedures about drawing up the vaccines at the right time so that it will get used within that six-hour period.“

To reduce wastage, the vaccine hub at Monash Medical Centre will book in healthcare workers early in the morning, from 7.30am, seven days a week.

“This will allow us to catch some of our night-time staff before they go home and so we are not having queues of people waiting and we make sure we use all our vials properly,” she said.

The first vaccines in regional Victoria will be administered by Barwon Health in Geelong and Portland. Pfizer hubs are also being established in Ballarat, Bendigo, Albury-Wodonga, Sale and the Latrobe Valley.

Barwon South West public health unit director Eugene Athan said plans were under way to immunise 1000 healthcare workers, aged care residents, and port of entry workers next week.

The second phase of the rollout, involving the AstraZeneca vaccine, aims to inoculate 6.1 million people, including anyone aged over 70, younger adults with underlying health conditions, and other high-risk workers.

Professor Athan confirmed Geelong’s former Ford factory was being considered as a site for large-scale vaccinations.

“The Ford building looks quite promising because it’s vacant and it just needs refurbishment,” he said. “That would be a mass vaccination facility for the general public.”

Ms Roper previously managed the Melbourne Showgrounds COVID-19 testing station and on Monday will be one of the first people in Australia to receive the Pfizer vaccine, as vaccinators begin inoculating each other.

She said the milestone had been on her mind in the last couple of days, and with it hope that it would herald the start of safer international travel and a return to a more normal life.

“We can stop having to live in so much fear of taking it home,” she said.

“It’s been a crazy year and it’s almost like this is the final bit, so that we can close the loop and hopefully eradicate it.”

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