Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter
What used to reverberate to the sounds of hotly contested games of five-a-side and basketball is now at the heart of North Wales’ mass Covid-19 vaccination effort.
Bangor University’s Canolfan Brailsford has come a long way in a year.
The former sporting hub was converted into a field hospital and renamed Ysbyty Enfys, Bangor at the start of the coronavirus pandemic
In barely two months it was converted into a mass Covid-19 vaccination facility and has already helped protect more than 16,000 people across north west Wales.
And unlike those football matches, in what seems like another life, the fight against the spread of the virus is showing no signs of slowing down.
Since mid-December, the gymnasium, rather than treating sick patients is now playing a more proactive role in ensuring people avoid the hospital altogether.
The mass vaccination centre (MVC), one of three across north Wales and also supported by GP’s surgeries and community facilities, covers the counties of Gwynedd and Anglesey and is currently dispensing the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine to between seven and eight hundred people a day.
The hall is now filled with dozens of individual booths, all surrounded by marshals and health professionals playing their part in protecting some of the north west’s most vulnerable people.
Many of the field hospital fittings have simply been re-purposed for its new role.
And by continuing to welcome hundreds of people every day, health chiefs are confident of hitting the mid-February target to cover the top four cohorts who are first in line for the vaccine.
Welcoming the Local Democracy Reporting Service for a visit this week, the centre’s covid vaccination project lead said that forward planning but also the ability to be flexible were vital in allowing the smooth running of what is a massive operation.
“We tend to work a fortnight or three weeks in advance, but much also depends on the vaccine supply and ensuring that need is met across Wales,” said Anwen Last.
“This centre was initially set-up to cover southern Anglesey and Arfon but with the introduction of the AstraZeneca vaccine being distributed by GPs, we now provide for both counties in their entirety to ensure that all the highest priority categories are catered for on time.
“As you’d expect there have been isolated incidents where a tiny number of needles have malfunctioned or the very fragile vaccine has been accidentally dropped or damaged somewhere in transit, for example, but I’d like to correct a misconception and stress that no actual doses go to waste with every usable vaccine going into the arms of the people who need them the most.”
The facility, part of Bangor University’s estate, is manned by vaccinators, clinical support staff and an army of volunteers at any one time, working seven days a week on shifts running from 8am to 8pm.
Sara Scott, the clinical manager who helps coordinate a crew of up to 12 vaccinators and six observational staff at any one time, added: “To start off with we were operational for three days a week but it then ramped up to five and now seven days a week.
“Usually we aim towards seven or eight hundred vaccines a day, with people telling us they’ve been waiting 10 months to get their vaccine and are clearly so thankful to finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.
“Relief is usually the major emotion and while this is on a scale well and beyond the annual flu vaccine programme, thankfully we’re going some way to achieving some semblance of normality in people’s lives.
“The staff have been fantastic, and while shifts are supposed to end at 8pm we’ve had occasions where they’ve still been here until past 10pm without complaint.
“They are so conscientious, despite often having other duties at hospitals for instance.”
With appointments staggered to allow for social distancing, people are urged not to turn up early so to avoid queues and an unnecessary build-up of people.
The whole process has been designed to take no more than 20 minutes from start to finish, including staying behind for 15 minute period after receiving the vaccine to ensure that no notable side effects are evident.
One of the many over 70’s receiving their first jab this week was Lyndon Gilks of Rhosybol on Anglesey.
“I feel fine, I’ve been looking forward to a bit more freedom as it’s been quite restrictive,” he said, adding that he’s “missed popping down to the pub.”
“No one should have any doubts about taking the vaccine, its painless and so far there haven’t been any side effects.”
But with the process of offering second vaccines to the first cohort not long away, health board chiefs are also keen to track down eligible residents in the top four priority categories who have yet to receive their first.
The eligible categories, namely over 70s, those classed as “extremely clinically vulnerable”, and any NHS or social care workers had been urged not to call their GPs or health board for an appointment, with letters being sent to households.
But now, any over 70’s not yet contacted are now being asked to get in touch and to book their jabs.
According to Dr Chris Stockport, BCUHB’s COVID-19 lead, among those yet to be contacted could include people not currently registered with a GP – but also urged those not yet due the vaccine to continue waiting for now.
He said: “People over 70 years of age who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine appointment are asked to please call the booking centre on 03000 840004 as we have appointments available.
“As we move through the groups and open the call centre up to more people we will publicise this on our website, through social media, through our partners working across north Wales, and will keep the media informed too.
“So please don’t worry that you will not be able to be vaccinated, or that you have been forgotten about.”
And with these priority groups likely to receive a phone call to be offered a short notice appointment, Dr Stockport conceded that some older people may be reluctant to answer the phone to numbers they don’t recognise, with some are understandably worried about vaccination scams.
“We know that some people do not answer their phones if they do not recognise the number,” Dr Stockport went on to say.
“However if you are in one of the priority groups currently being vaccinated then we may try to call you to offer you a short notice appointment if one becomes available.
“The vaccine is only available on the NHS and is free of charge. The NHS will never ask you for bank account details.
“If you receive an email, text message or phone call purporting to be from the NHS and you are asked to provide financial details, this is a scam.”