Dec 2020

First Covid-19 vaccine recipient on island of Ireland says she hopes she made her daughter proud

THE NURSE WHO today became the first person on the island of Ireland to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has said she hopes she made her daughter proud.

The first dose was administered at approximately 8am at a mass vaccination centre at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to 28-year-old nurse Joanna Sloan from Dundrum in Co Down.

Sloan is sister in charge of Covid vaccination for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Northern Ireland’s largest.

She is a former emergency department nurse and has been in her occupation for six years.

She is engaged but her wedding was postponed due to the pandemic. She has a daughter aged five named Cailie.

Sloan said today: “I hope that I get to be there when she sees it.

A nurse for six years, Sloan was working as a clinical sister at the Royal Victoria Hospital’s emergency department at the turn of the year. In February, as Northern Ireland braced for the arrival of the virus, she was promoted to senior nurse with responsibility for Covid-19.

That involved developing safe working processes and pathways for symptomatic coronavirus patients presenting at A&E.

That progressed into a job helping to establish three Covid testing centres.

In recent weeks she had been at the forefront of efforts to transform a large storage building on the Royal site into the Belfast Trust’s vaccination centre.

“Everyone has been working around the clock for the past few weeks to get our centre up and running,” she said.

“There has been a lot of hard work. Originally it was a storage facility and we have been able to turn that into a complete clinical environment within under a week.”

With the centre ready on time, sister Sloan will now manage the team administering the vaccines in Belfast over the weeks and months ahead.

But before that there was the little matter of getting the jab herself.

Given her pivotal role in setting up the centre, trust management felt it appropriate that sister Sloan should be the first recipient of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Northern Ireland.

She walked into the vaccination room shortly after 8am and was greeted by colleagues and peer vaccinators Carly Niblock, 32, and Conor McDowell, 31, both from Belfast.

McDowell had earlier wheeled the single vial of vaccine in on a trolley – almost ceremonially.

After asking the sister some routine medical questions, Ms Niblock picked up the tiny glass receptacle from the centre of a blue plastic tray, punctured the lid and slowly drew out the vaccine into a syringe.

She then wiped the top of sister Sloan’s left arm with a cotton ball before carefully pressing the needle into her skin. It was done. The first person on the island of Ireland had received a Covid-19 vaccine.

There was a brief pause and then the applause started.

First among fellow healthcare workers in the room before reverberating down the corridor outside, where a socially distanced line of fellow vaccinators were already queuing for their dose.

McDowell briefly grabbed Sloan’s shoulders with his gloved hands and squeezed tight. At a different time in a different context you suspect it would have been a massive hug.

The nurse was wearing a face mask but it was clear from the sudden creasing around her eyes that she was smiling and broadly.

Afterwards, she reflected on her emotions at being first in line.

Sister Sloan’s April wedding date now looks a decent bet.

But before then there is a lot more work to be done.

“I’m hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

“We might get to have our big day after ten years of waiting.”

‘The importance of today’

Stormont health minister Robin Swann said: “Let us not underestimate the importance of today and what we are seeing with the start of our vaccination programme.”

He told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “It is a game-changer, it is a big day. It is the day we have long been waiting for.”

He said it should be greeted with optimism but tempered with caution.

“This is the start of a long road to recovery but we are on the first step.”

Earlier this morning, 90-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan became the first person to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the UK.

She said: “I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19, it’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year.”

Stocks of coronavirus vaccine arrived in Northern Ireland on Friday having first come through Dublin Port.

There are 25,000 doses in the initial batch of the vaccine.

The UK formally approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine last Wednesday, with 40 million doses of the vaccine already purchased.

There was pride and there was relief but there was also sadness at what this long year had already brought.

“I just thought to myself at last we’re here,” she said.

“Through everything that healthcare workers (have been through), either in hospital or community, people themselves losing family members, us losing colleagues, it felt like it was a huge moment and that (this) was and could possibly be the final hurdle in the fight against Covid.”

If the vaccine rollout goes to schedule, the need for restrictions in Northern Ireland is expected to diminish come spring time.

Published in The Journal 8th December 2020  Orla Dwyer

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