“If you vaccinate, say, 100 people a day, you might be saving a couple of lives”: meet the Durham University students who are volunteering to administer the Covid-19 vaccine

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Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Jonathan, Natasha, Becky and Patrick, four student volunteers from Durham University First Aid Society who are participating in a national effort to administer the Covid-19 vaccine. Jonathan and Natasha have been involved in the first aid society since their first year, while Becky joined last year, and Patrick got involved through the vaccination program this year.

Jonathan explained that the first aid society is “an extension of the St. John ambulance student volunteering arm.” The society “teaches first aid to student groups and provides first aid cover for different university events like balls, as well as larger events such as football matches with Durham miners gala.” Natasha, treasurer, further elaborated that the society “provides a community for people who are interested in first aid. We’ll have weekly sessions where we learn something first-aid related and have a chat- we used to go down to the pub” she jokes regretfully, “but we still have a Thursday weekly meeting that people can come to.”

This year the first aid society is recruiting volunteers to administer the Covid-19 vaccine. Jonathan explained this is “part of a national effort by the NHS to try and vaccinate the entire population as soon as possible.” The programme currently has 10,000 trained volunteers nationwide and recruits not just students but people “of all different backgrounds.”

Each of the students had their own motivations for wanting to take part in the program. Natasha explained, “I’ve really enjoyed the volunteering I have been able to do with St. John ambulance over the last year. When the vaccination program came up it seemed like a really great opportunity, not only to develop that skillset but to implement what I’d learned in terms of first aid because obviously events aren’t happening, so being able to go out and vaccinate people as part of a massive national effort was really appealing and seemed like a nice way to get involved.”

“In a way, we are quite lucky, because we’re young and relatively healthy and able to do this”

Jonathan expanded on the satisfaction of having a real positive impact at this time when many of us feel our lives have come to a standstill. “It can be extremely frustrating when you see all these events happening in the news and you can feel hopeless when you’re just being asked to stay at home and stop the spread”, he acknowledges, “but at the same time, people are seriously suffering from this pandemic. In a way, we are quite lucky, because we’re young and relatively healthy and able to do this.” He also explains how rewarding the role is, as “you’re doing something which is genuinely changing the lives of people. If you vaccinate, say, 100 people a day, you might be saving a couple of lives […] it’s a big responsibility but also sort of awe inspiring, in a way.”

Natasha walked me through the process of becoming a student vaccinator, explaining that it requires “about 20 hours of online training as well as be assessed on site, so it’s pretty involved.” The training covers how to give the vaccine as well as general first aid training such as CPR and fire marshalling. As well as those who administer the vaccines, students can also volunteer as “patient advocates who welcome patients and sits with them in the recovery area”, a role which Jonathan stresses is equally important considering the advanced age of many of the patients. 

“for some of these people you’re the first person they’ve spoken to face to face in months”

Becky explained that she was surprised by the intensely emotional aspect to the role, saying “so many people are entirely overwhelmed with happiness- it means so much to them. I think because we’re younger it’s sometimes easy to forget how much Covid has affected the older generation, many of whom haven’t been going out at all. A big part of the role is just chatting to these people, and for some of them you’re the first person they’ve spoken to face to face in months, and they’re so happy because this experience is the one tangible thing that means eventual freedom.”

All four wholeheartedly agreed the experience has been, as Patrick put it, “100% worth it.” As Becky summarised, “on the one hand, you leave the day tired because you’ve been standing up for ages and stressed because you’ve done no work the whole day, but at the same time it’s so rewarding to see how grateful people are.” Patrick agreed, “most people were very pleased to be getting the vaccine, and I also enjoyed the process of getting to chat to people.”

In terms of recommending getting involved, Jonathan explains that “while people might be afraid that they won’t actually be able to administer vaccines when the time comes, remember that you’re going to be working alongside a team full of fantastic professionals, and they’re all incredibly helpful if you need advice or just want to practice your techniques. It might take a while to get your application through, but then this is a long-term effort.” As Natasha summarised, “it’s a nice way of doing something small, but being part of that team making a big effort- it’s like you’re one cog in a massive machine”.

Image credit: James Whyman

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