That was the message from a leading medic at the Royal Preston, exactly a year to the day since the first Covid jab in the county was administered at the hospital.
Dr. Mohammed Munavvar, a consultant respiratory physician at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals (LTH), told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that people should not delay booking their booster jab as soon as they become eligible for it – because the difference between being hospitalised by Covid or not can come down to a matter of days when immunity from second doses begins to wane.
He was speaking as new figures reveal that the lives of between 15,000 and 20,000 people in the North West are estimated to have been saved by being vaccinated.
However, data also shows that there is huge variation across Lancashire in the proportion of over-12s who have been doubled jabbed – from around two thirds in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Preston to over 80 percent in Fylde, Ribble Valley and Wyre.
But Dr Munavvar says that even the best take-up rates in the county are not good enough – and represent a “missed opportunity”.
“It is a cause for continuing concern, because we have a very effective weapon that has been proven scientifically to protect us from Covid and markedly reduce the chance of hospitalisation and death – and still we have not grabbed the opportunity to get to well over 90 percent [of the population having had two doses].
“Vaccines have made a massive difference, there’s no doubt about it, but we could have been in an even better position if we had achieved as close to 100 percent [coverage] as possible.”
Currently, all over-16s are eligible for two doses and that is about to be extended to over-12s after a government announcement last week. At the same time, the booster programme will be expanded to all over-18s – and the gap between second doses and boosters will reduce from the current six months to three.
People will be invited in an order of priority determined by age and clinical vulnerability – and the intention is for everybody to have been offered a booster by the end of January. It is expected that the three-month gap from second doses to boosters will come into effect for the over-40s on Wednesday - and they will be able to book their booster appointment after two months (61 days) have elapsed since their second jab.
The nature of the ever-changing numbers eligible for boosters means that it is difficult to calculate the proportion of the population to whom they are available that has taken up the offer. However, the LDRS understands that across Lancashire and South Cumbria, roughly 75 percent of people so far eligible for a booster have received one.
Dr. Munavvar says that people should seize the opportunity to book a booster when they are permitted, because of the difference the third jabs can make.
“We have some people who are double jabbed who are very close to the period where they are due to get the booster jab – or have delayed it slightly – and have then picked up the infection.
“The bottom line is that the people who come into hospital with [Covid] having been vaccinated, have shorter stays and are a lot more likely to recover and go back home compared to those who are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated. [The latter can] become very ill and then deteriorate rapidly, get admitted to critical care and sometimes, sadly, succumb to their illness.”
The number of people with Covid in the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble hospitals has ranged between 30 and 50 for the past month – and the latest figure for 30th November stands at 36.
Dr. Munavvar hopes that reticence amongst some younger residents about getting even a second dose can be overcome – and that any new-found enthusiasm for being vaccinated extends to getting their subsequent boosters. He says that under-40s who are ending up in hospital are not necessarily against the idea of being jabbed, but have been complacent.
“People over 50 have done really well, close to 97 percent [are] vaccinated. Even those over 40 have done quite well. But as you go to the younger age groups, uptake of the second dose drops off quite dramatically.
“Younger patients who come into hospital extremely unwell say that they just put it off because they never thought that they would become so ill and they thought that they were so fit that Covid would be a viral infection that would come and go [for them]
“They never expected to be admitted to hospital – and it is very clear that had they been vaccinated, they would never have ended up in hospital because they are actually quite fit otherwise.
“We are certainly in a much better situation than we were a year ago – and hats off to everybody involved in the programme, from the co-ordinators to those administering it.
“We have it all available to us – we have just got to go and grab it,” Dr. Munavvar said.
He also told the LDRS that several confirmed cases of the Omicron variant had passed through LTH, something he said was “not surprising”.
While he accepts that there is some uncertainty about what the new variant will do to the trajectory of the pandemic, he urges a combination of vaccines and continuing caution as the best way to “turn things around” in the face of any Omicron threat – particularly as Christmas approaches. The biggest threat, Dr. Munavvar says, comes from apathy and complacency towards Covid in all its forms.
“We have done well compared to many other countries – but we need to keep up that momentum and get a booster jab quickly.
“To allow us to enjoy the festive season with friends and family, [we should be getting] vaccinated, but also masking and taking precautions indoors – do a lateral flow test before attending [events] and do not attend if you have any doubt about symptoms.
“Always mask and, if possible, keep the place ventilated as well.
“Vaccines have been a game changer, but we could have done a lot more if only we had close to everybody vaccinated,” he added.
Speaking before the announcement that the reduction in the gap between second doses and boosters for the over-40s would be implemented on Wednesday,Jane Scattergood, Covid-19 Vaccination Director for the Lancashire and South Cumbria Integrated Care System, told the the LDRS that the region “stands ready to go live” with the expanded booster programme “as soon as possible and no later than 13 December, once UK Health Security Agency guidance and [the] legal framework has been updated”.
She added: “The target the government has set is to offer a booster to everyone eligible by the end of January.
“As with the first jabs, people will be notified by age group, with the older and more clinically vulnerable continuing to receive their jabs first.”
WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT THE VACCINE?
The first Lancashire resident to receive the Covid vaccine a year ago today says that the jab - and the second and booster doses she has received since - eased “the fear” she felt during the early days of the pandemic.
Doreen McKeown, who is now 82, was given the county’s first Covid shot at the Royal Preston before dawn on 8th December last year.
Twelve months on, and she says that while she is still taking extreme care, the vaccine allowed her to recapture some of the simple pleasures that had been lost - including volunteering for the NHS.
“The fear is not there anymore - caution, yes, but not fear. You still have to follow the guidelines with masks and distancing, but we have done that all the way through.
“But your life is near as normal as it can be when you have had [all the jabs].
“My advice to people would be: do not hesitate, don't be afraid - get out there and get it, for your own sake, but for everybody else, too.”
Doreen, who lives in Hutton, says it was “pure coincidence” that she ended up being the first person to be vaccinated in Lancashire - along with a desire to find a parking space.
“The phone call came [one] evening to ask if I was interested in the rollout and I obviously said yes.
“I was given an option of a time and chose to go early to avoid traffic and so that I could park. Two of us arrived at more or less the same time and my paperwork was finished, so I went in first. But who knows where they plucked my name from in the first place.
“It’s been a rollercoaster year for the whole world. I’m so proud of the NHS in Lancashire and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals - they have done a tremendous job, as have the people who developed the vaccine.
“Who knows where we’d be if they hadn't come out with it so quickly.”
LANCASHIRE VACCINE UPTAKE
The figures below show the percentage of over-12s in each area who have received a Covid vaccine, by number of doses. The ranking relates to second doses (currently available for all over-16s). Only the over-40s are currently able to receive a booster dose and the size of the eligible population varies across different parts of Lancashire. All over-18s will soon be able to book a booster.
1. Fylde - 87.2% (1st) 81.4% (2nd) 47.1% (booster or 3rd)
2. Ribble Valley - 87.3% (1st) 81.0% (2nd) 42.2% (booster or 3rd)
3. Wyre - 86.1% (1st) 80.2% (2nd) 47.9% (booster or 3rd)
4. South Ribble - 86.9% (1st) 80.0% (2nd) 38.6% (booster or 3rd)
5. Chorley - 85.5% (1st) 78.4% (2nd) 38.2% (booster or 3rd)
6. West Lancashire - 83.3% (1st) 76.9% (2nd) 40.6% (booster or 3rd)
7. Rossendale - 81.4% (1st) 73.8% (2nd) 34.3% (booster or 3rd)
8. Lancaster - 78.9% (1st) 72.8% (2nd) 36.8% (booster or 3rd)
9. Blackpool - 79.2% (1st) 72.1% (2nd) 35.3% (booster or 3rd)
10. Hyndburn - 77.2% (1st) 69.7% (2nd) 28.3% (booster or 3rd)
11. Burnley - 75.8% (1st) 68.5% (2nd) 28.7% (booster or 3rd)
12. Preston - 75.5% (1st) 67.5% (2nd) 28.1% (booster or 3rd)
13. Pendle - 75.1% (1st) 67.4% (2nd) 26.0% (booster or 3rd)
14. Blackburn with Darwen - 75.6% (1st) 66.9% (2nd) 25.5% (booster or 3rd)
LANCASHIRE AVERAGE: 81.1% (1st) 74.0% (2nd) 35.5% (booster or 3rd)
JABS IN NUMBERS
In the North West over the last year…
***15,000-20,000 lives are estimated to have been saved by Covid vaccination
***205 miles of needles have been used to administer Covid vaccines in the region
***1,000 gallons of Covid vaccine have been delivered
Source: NHS England