18 February 2021 | Story Andre Damons | Photo Charl Devenish
Dr Samantha Potgieter, infectious disease expert at the Universitas Academic Hospital and affiliated lecturer in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of the Free State (UFS), was the first health-care worker to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the Free State.

Dr Samantha Potgieter, infectious disease expert at the Universitas Academic Hospital and affiliated lecturer in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of the Free State (UFS), was Wednesday (17 February 2021) the first health-care worker in the Free State to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Dr Nicholas Pearce, Head of Surgery at the UFS and also heading the Free State Province COVID-19-Task Team, said they were rolling out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as part of a 3B clinical trial. The vaccination of health-care workers is part of an extension of the study and the vaccine has not yet been registered with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).

Excited for the province to receive this vaccine

“It is vital to vaccinate health-care workers to prevent staff members from getting ill and dying. So, it is a critical process, as all health-care workers are key people we have to protect in terms of the fight against COVID-19,” said Dr Pearce.

Dr Potgieter, who is working tirelessly in the COVID-19 ward at the Universitas Hospital in Bloemfontein, said she is extremely excited and also excited for the Free State province to receive this vaccine. “I am grateful to Dr Pearce and his team for setting up this vaccine station for us at the Universitas Hospital,” she said.

According to her, Wednesday was supposed to be a dry run to make sure that the systems are all in place to handle large volumes of patients. The idea is to first vaccinate front-line health-care workers and thereafter essential workers, according to the national Department of Health’s vaccination plan.

Important to vaccinate health-care workers

“The idea was to vaccinate a few people to make sure everything is in place. To check our systems, to make sure we can safely vaccinate others. It is extremely important to vaccinate health-care workers; I think, not only are we trying to protect our health-care workers from occupational exposure to COVID-19 – and they are obviously at high risk of occupational exposure – but you also want to preserve a workforce,” said Dr Potgieter.

She said it would be important to not only vaccinate health-care workers working directly in COVID-19 wards, but to vaccinate all health-care workers so that we can provide an ongoing service to our community.

The Free State MEC for Health, Montseng Tsiu, also received the vaccine on Wednesday.

Nursing students part of process

Four second-year students from the UFS School of Nursing were also part of the process. They were responsible for screening patients before and after receiving the vaccine.

Refiloe Herimbi said it feels amazing to be part of this process, as she never expected it. Said Herimbi: “I feel good about it. My role is to take the vital signs of the patients who is taking the vaccine. I give them the health education of the vaccine.”

Another student, Natashia Bouwer, said it is an honour for her to be part of this breakthrough moment in history. “I am very excited to be part of this momentous occasion and didn’t think twice about being here,” said Bouwer.

The National Control Laboratory for Biological Products

The UFS-based National Control Laboratory for Biological Products (NCL), a full member of the international WHO-National Control Laboratory Network for Biologicals and one of 12 laboratories worldwide contracted to perform vaccine testing for the World Health Organisation (WHO), also received the first batch of the AstraZeneca vaccines earlier this month. Because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still in the trial phase and has not yet been registered, it did not follow the same process as the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The NCL is also the only vaccine-testing laboratory in the country that performs the final quality-control testing of all human vaccine batches marketed in South Africa on behalf of SAHPRA. In its role as a vaccine-testing laboratory for the WHO, the NCL helps to ensure that the vaccines purchased through the WHO prequalification programme for international distribution to resource-limited countries, meet the high standards of quality, safety, and efficiency.

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