In early 2021, my daughter not yet eighteen months old, I enrolled in an immunisation course so I could help my community. I then began work vaccinating, swabbing and contact tracing. My COVID-19 rollercoaster had commenced!
Uptake of the new vaccine was initially slow and I found myself answering questions like: Do I need it? How does it work? What are the side-effects? People were scared of this newly approved vaccine. But as soon as the Delta wave hit in April 2021, we went from fifty to eighty vaccinations a day to more than a thousand. That may not sound like a lot, but it is when you have only eight to ten vaccination pods.
We experienced anti-vaxxers protesting and threats of violence toward staff. Racism often reared its head. There were attempts to bribe staff with wads of cash if they would agree to record, but not administer, the vaccine. These incidents sometimes required police intervention.
The government and health department recommendations changed from day to day, sometimes during the day. Who was eligible for what vaccine and who wasn’t, when to get vaccinated and when to book for the second dose all changed. We nurses struggled to keep up with the latest news and I found the general public had no bloody idea what was going on.
Being from western Victoria, we found ourselves outside at a local footy oval with very limited shelter and an average temperature of 4°Celsius, wind chill -5°. There was mud, snow, hail and sideways rain. We danced and sung to stay warm and sane. Snow pants, headbands, work boots and hand warmers were the uniform, under the full PPE, of course!
We were in a pandemic so anything goes at an outdoors swabbing site, right? I climbed onto many fully loaded prime movers to swab the drivers. My best mate and I jump-started a car that was holding up the testing line—luckily, I am the daughter of an auto-electrician! I saw a gentleman with a prosthetic nose—he removed it so I could swab the inside of his face.
Contact tracing—finding a way
Contact tracing with little to no training was a challenge, but I figured it out. I was often met with much frustration, disbelief and non-compliance. Interpreters were frequently needed to explain isolation requirements and help with tracing a person’s movements.
My most unforgettable call was to a young couple who had unknowingly become ‘close contacts’. When I explained to them that they were now required to isolate for ten days, they told me that they were burying their young child in three days. There were tears, four-letter words and confusion, from both me and the couple. Having a young child myself, this really hit me hard. I cried for the rest of the day.
I escalated their case and fortunately the couple was granted an isolation exemption by the health minister. My operations manager asked me if I would like to be the one to call them back and explain. When I did, I was met with so much appreciation, many more tears and overwhelming gratitude—this couple could now say goodbye and celebrate their baby’s life.