More than 7100 shots, 39 locations and four months later, one team's momentous effort to vaccinate people in regional NSW against COVID-19 has come to a close for 2021.
Across the region, drop-in clinics run by the University of New England (UNE) have boosted vaccination rates in the New England North West by 46 per cent.
The last was held on Thursday, December 2 at Tingha's Town Hall, the Armidale-based team having now travelled about 8500 kilometres to help protect communities large and small. The group of some 40 staff has set up shop in everything from abattoirs, schools and glasshouses, to tents in parks and carparks.
Spokesman David Schmude, director of UNE Life, said there had been many memorable moments, including when he found a 76-year-old woman crying after receiving her first vaccination at an Inverell walk-in clinic. He had met her earlier, wrapped in two scarves - to ward off the threat of the virus, she said. Now, however, "she was crying because she was so happy".
"She told me she lived alone, didn't have a regular GP, and hadn't left her home for nine weeks. She was just so relieved to get her first shot," David said.
"I'm full of admiration for our team and what we were able to achieve. Staff adapted their skills to turn the clinics around in record time and still give every person individual care and support.
"It has been an incredible team effort, drawing on community resources and goodwill. Everyone has got behind it, to show what's capable when communities work together."
UNE Life operates the university's lifestyle venues and services, including Sport UNE, food and beverage, and the in-town Belgrave Cinema. When the Armidale Local Government Area went into lockdown in August, most of them were forced to close their doors, leaving staff at a loose end.
Meanwhile, the UNE Medical Centre was needing to power up to meet demand. So with the centre's clinical staff, and 30 UNE Life staff taking on the logistics of setting up and operating the mobile clinics, the UNE vaccination campaign swung into action.
Within four days, they had brought together local GPs, Hunter New England Health, the Primary Health Network, police, St John's Ambulance Service, local councils, politicians and Aboriginal health services.
During the first walk-in mass vaccination clinic - in Armidale - some 575 people were vaccinated in the first day.
Comprising UNE Medical Centre nurses and GPs, plus the extensive logistics crew drawn from UNE Life ranks, the UNE team has since toured Moree, Inverell, Tingha, Ashford, Delungra, Guyra, Tamworth, Tenterfield and Glen Innes administering AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.
During a special award ceremony last week [[NOVEMBER 25]], UNE Vice-Chancellor Brigid Heywood and Chancellor James Harris recognised the significant role the team had played in ensuring public safety in the midst of the Delta outbreak.
"UNE aims to deliver education and research through a team-based approach," Professor Heywood said.
"Under exceptional circumstances, at an exceptional time, the UNE Life team stepped up and leaned in to support the whole community."
David said this echoed the sentiments expressed by many.
"People have been so thankful for the clinics," he said. "Everywhere we've gone, we've been treated so well. But it's been a real team effort and our privilege to be a part of the amazing wider community response."
He said he believed the convenience of the walk-in clinics had "really made a difference".
For example, through dedicated Armajun Aboriginal Health Service clinics, the UNE team helped dramatically lift vaccination levels among some of the region's vulnerable and isolated Indigenous communities.
"As opposed to one or two people visiting their doctor, we had entire families come into an environment in which they felt safe," David said.
"We made it as easy and accommodating as possible, complete with a barbecue. Then it didn't take long for word to spread throughout the communities."
At one Armidale clinic, a highly anxious Indigenous man sailed through his vaccination, before texting his sister and grandmother to do the same.
"Soon after, his grandmother turned up," David said.
"The bush telegraph worked wonders and it was wonderful to see people so happy afterwards, having got the jab and feeling safer."
David said demand had been so high in the early days that people had been prepared to wait for up to two-and-a-half hours for their turn.
"Our UNE Life staff, well used to delivering customer service, complemented the clinical staff to offer a very professional experience."
Ronan Crotty can usually be found making coffee at UNE's Café Life, but was seconded to the vaccination team to do "a bit of everything" - from set-up and temperature checks at the front door to data entry.
"It was really exciting to be able to help the UNE Medical Centre crew throughout our region," Ronan said.
"These clinics have been really important, especially in more remote communities like Ashford, which don't have the facilities or resources to vaccinate their residents en masse.
"Some of the places we visited only have one doctor for the entire town, so the drop-in clinics have been an accessible way to increase vaccination numbers."
Fellow Café Life staffer and UNE student Sal Deshon served as a marshal at a number of clinics.
It was her job to usher people in, check and collect their paperwork, hand out food and water, and register details into the computer system.
"One of the highlights was seeing the turnout of people each week," Sal said.
"A lot of the clinics I helped at were held during the lockdown, so it was particularly nice to see everyone banding together to try and do the right thing in such challenging times.
"Most people were incredibly grateful; they were just so happy that regional citizens were being looked after."
Some of the clinic days were very long, stretching to 10-12 hours.
"Often we would be in the bus by 6am and at our destination setting up by 8am, and we never turned anyone away," David said.
"I think people now look at UNE in a different light; we have demonstrated our networks, ability and resources to mobilise to meet an urgent community need."
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