Roll out the vaccine, roll up your sleeves – Karen’s story

The Somerset vaccination programme has now delivered over 754,000 vaccinations (as of 11 July 2021) to people across our county. It has been a huge effort, with a small army of people from the NHS, from GP surgeries, from Somerset County Council, and the voluntary sector, working in a wide variety of roles to make this possible.

Our director of commercial development, Karen Prosser, is one of those who has been at the heart of the programme. She stepped into the role of programme director for the Somerset COVID-19 Vaccination Programme, having been immersed in all things vaccination since the start of the programme. Karen has since returned to her usual role with us, but before she did, she reflected on her work in the vaccination programme in her own words:

"For everybody the last year has been very different, but for me it has been an experience I could never have imagined! My usual job is to lead commercial and partnership contracts, managing things like the M&S shop and café at Musgrove Park Hospital as well as developing partnerships and commercial agreements such as the new diagnostics centre with Rutherford Health.

"However in November, along with a number of colleagues, I was asked if I would help set up what we needed to do across Somerset for the vaccination programme we knew was coming. I was a bit worried about how I could do this alongside my normal job but agreed I would work 4 days a week on it. How optimistic I was!

"As we have all seen, this has become the most complex national programme that has ever been undertaken, but also one of our greatest national successes. It needed everyone across all the Somerset health and care organisations to pull together to make sure we could protect the most vulnerable people within our communities, as well as enable us to begin to move back towards how we used to live.

"To achieve the speed of roll-out and coverage that was demanded, the Somerset COVID-19 Vaccination Programme needed a number of different ways that people could get a vaccination, across a diverse range of locations. Together we have delivered vaccinations from:

  • Vaccination hubs across Somerset run by groups of GPs who already work together in Primary Care Networks providing services across an area
  • Two county vaccination centres located at Taunton Racecourse and the Bath & West Showground
  • Two hospital hubs at Yeovil District Hospital and Musgrove Park Hospital which have been mostly focused on vaccinating health and care colleagues across the county
  • Community pharmacies in Taunton, Yeovil and Bruton, Burnham-on-Sea and Minehead.
  • Roving teams made up of GPs, colleagues from Somerset FT and other organisations, such as Festival Medics who normally provide services at Glastonbury Festival. These teams have been going to care homes and people who are housebound, as well as those we knew may not get the vaccination if we didn’t go to them, such as the homeless and people with mental health problems.

"All of these locations have only been able to run with the support of a wide range of people, including all the GPs and those working within GP practices across the whole county, colleagues from Somerset FT and Somerset Clinical Commissioners Group, Somerset County and District Councils, as well as an army of volunteers drawn together by the wonderful Spark Somerset, who have been so important in corralling the numerous volunteers across the county to support the differing needs of each vaccination site. Everyone has worked so hard to make sure we can do this as fast and safely as possible.

"The logistics behind the scenes to deliver vaccinations were very complex. Together we have delivered two different types of vaccination. Pfizer was the first one approved, but needed to be kept at incredibly low temperatures and could not be moved once it had been delivered. This made it impossible to provide Pfizer jabs to anything other than GP and hospital hub sites. Introduction of the “Oxford” AstraZeneca vaccine made things much more straightforward, as it could be stored in fridges and more easily moved; that meant the “roving teams” could start to support wider delivery.

"The logistics of getting vaccines delivered to each of the sites across the country has not been easy and has caused a lot of issues for everyone, particularly the GP hubs who have dealt with short notice of vaccine deliveries. However, with the dedication of all involved, they have just got on with it and, however difficult, done what was needed.

"As is the case on many complicated programmes, there is a lot that goes on in the background that no one really knows about, and this is definitely the case with the vaccination programme. So, whilst we have many people on the frontline providing vaccinations, in each of our sites we have many more making sure we have appropriate and safe facilities, arranging security, marshalling and ensuring safe passage of traffic, as well as making sure bacon sandwiches were available on those cold winter mornings!

"All of this requires organisation, which has been what I have been focused on - from making sure the agreements for the two major vaccination sites were acceptable, to working with other colleagues to provide each of the sites with the services they needed, like cleaning and waste disposal, while making sure the support of Spark Somerset was in place, to co-ordinate the volunteers and work with our Somerset FT recruitment team, so that we could swiftly bring on board the hundreds of extra people we needed to make this programme work.

"All of us involved in this programme have been deeply touched by the huge emotion we see when people receive their jabs - from the 100 year old lady who had not been out of her house for six months and dressed up in her finest clothes to come to the Taunton racecourse, to the care workers who just wanted to get back to work.

"Tears have been shed, tears of sheer happiness and gratitude, with many of my colleagues reporting that this is the best thing they have ever done.

"Everyone has worked tirelessly to make sure that we delivered as many vaccines as we could. With such an important programme that has to meet nationally agreed deadlines, there’s a lot of reporting required to make sure that each week, we inform both national teams and the leaders across the health and care organisations as to how we are doing. In Somerset, working together as one, we have absolutely excelled, with national figures often showing we are leading the country in the speed at which we’re providing vaccinations to the most vulnerable.

"Thank you to anyone who has been involved in supporting the programme. I have worked on many large complex health projects across several continents, but I have never done anything so difficult but so rewarding. I’m proud that I’ve played a small part in what we have achieved, but more importantly, I am proud of, and grateful to, every single person who has been involved."