The chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group, which runs the local public hospitals in the west and north-west, says he would like to see greater quantities of the Covid-19 vaccine become available and for there to be more certainty around weekly deliveries of the product.
"No doubt as we get further down the track, there will be far greater certainty," says Tony Canavan. "But we would love to get it now. We need much bigger quantities and to get certainty around the delivery for each week. In the months of April and May, we expect the number of vaccines will increase. We would love to see more becoming available, and we are ready when it does, to administer it as quickly as possible.
"Since February, there has been a much greater quantity of vaccine available to us and similarly for March, the availability is quite good. If we could say we would get X number of doses, we could plan. But we have to be flexible, we are not in a perfect situation. However, the more we can plan, the better. One of the things I would definitely say is that the rate at which we are giving out the vaccine is only limited by the supply. This means that we are on top of everything within our control."
Professor Brian McCraith, [the chairperson of the national Covid-19 Vaccine Taskforce] said Ireland could expect one million Covid-19 vaccine doses per month in May, June, and July, says the CEO. "We would probably be looking at a couple of 100,000 for the west and north-west".
60,000 vaccinated in west
More than 60,000 people have been vaccinated in the region since the rollout of the programme began nine weeks ago. Some 15,000 of those were in public and private nursing homes in Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon.
"The first needle went into the arm of Lorna Quinn, a nurse working in UHG on 29 December," he says. "She got the first vaccine. We set ourselves a very ambitious plan to get five large [vaccination] centres up and running by mid March. We are almost there with all five of the big ones."
There are 37 mass vaccination centres in Ireland, the west and north-western facilities are based at Galway Racecourse, Breaffy House in Castlebar, the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon, and Sligo and Letterkenny institutes of technology. Both the Galway and Sligo centres are open, the Donegal one opens today (Thursday ), and the Mayo and Roscommon facilities will be in operation by Monday.
Vaccinators at the Ballybrit centre have been administering first and second doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to healthcare staff, including hospital and community employees, and other healthcare workers, since it opened.
Tony Canavan, chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group.
The plan to vaccinate this group firstly was to allow the team to identify and resolve any minor issues that may arise before the mass vaccination of the general population begins later this month.
"We can do 1,000 vaccinations a day and 5,000 a week at the Galway Racecourse centre," says Mr Canavan, who heads up seven public hospitals on five sites in Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, and Donegal and presides over an annual budget of almost one billion euro. "1,200 people went through there last Friday."
Only half vaccination booths being used yet
The Galway facility has the greatest capability in the Saolta group as it is its biggest centre. It has 40 vaccination booths but only 20 are currently in use. "To run it, we need a staffing complement of 300, everybody from people organising parking, providing security, registration, reception duties, vaccinators, and pharmacy staff," says the boss of the Saolta hospital group which covers a population of 800,000 in the west and north-west.
"At the moment, most of the vaccinators are nursing staff but we are also training physiotherapists as vaccinators. Each type of vaccine that is being given requires specific training. We are mostly using the AstraZeneca vaccine. We used the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the first stages and we are still using it a little. The Moderna vaccine is the least used."
The first non-healthcare group to be vaccinated at the Galway Racecourse centre are expected to begin receiving their jabs by the end of this week. These are the estimated 24,000 people in the region, aged 16 to 69 with "very high risk" medical conditions, who were moved up the vaccine priority list by the Government recently. There are an estimated 140,000 people in this category nationally, including those with cystic fibrosis, people with particular cardiac conditions, some with renal disease, or undergoing treatment for cancer, according to Mr Canavan.
"On Friday of last week we were asked to identify all the people in our area that fitted into that category. We asked the doctors in the hospitals, for most of the conditions identified, these people would be receiving ongoing hospital care. We hope by the end of the week to start administering the vaccine to some of them."
There are plans to operate satellite vaccination facilities from the Galway Racecourse centre to Connemara and the islands within weeks. Some people have already been vaccinated by their GPs on the three Aran Islands, which have a total population of 1,400 people, but there are a number of others who have not been innoculated yet.
He says the preparation requirements for these new centres would be "fairly straightforward" because they would be "relatively small".
As the vaccination programme continues to offer people hope, there is positive news too on the local hospital front in terms of falling Covid-19 cases. There were nine Covid positive patients in UHG on Tuesday, none in Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, none in Roscommon University Hospital (it has remained Covid-free throughout the third wave of the pandemic ), but there were 34 cases at Mayo University Hospital. Mr Canavan says that figure is not a "very, major concern" as the situation is improving but it is being "watched very closely".
There were four Covid-19 patients in UHG's intensive care unit at the time of going to press, there were none at Portiuncula University Hospital, and "very low" numbers at Mayo University Hospital in Castlebar. There was one free ICU bed at UHG, two in Portiuncula, and five in Mayo.
The number of hospital staff on Covid-19 related leave is decreasing with 358 employees, down from 400 a fortnight ago, currently off work throughout the Saolta Group's seven hospitals (UHG, Merlin Park, Portiuncula, Roscommon, Sligo and Letterkenny ). There are 132 staff on Covid leave at UHG, 89 of whom are nurses, 14 in Portiuncula, six of whom are nurses, and 86 at Mayo University Hospital, 47 of these are nursing staff.