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Belgium's largest vaccination centre edges closer to completion
The largest vaccination centre in Belgium is being constructed at the Palais 1 site in Heysel. When it is operational – if all goes well, from 15 February – 1,000 people a day will be able to be vaccinated. It is hoped that by 1 April, the centre will be able to vaccinate 3,600 people a day, or one person every four minutes.
The centre, when operating at full capacity and speed, will be open for 10 hours a day, seven days a week. To get such an operation ready, and for the building to meet the healthcare specifications necessary in three weeks is a huge challenge.
The centre was initially supposed to open on 1 February but issues with the availability of vaccines and the finalisation of procedures and protocols have led to a delay. Meanwhile, work continues at pace to get the centre ready.
Catherine Bosman, the head nurse at the Saint-Pierre University Hospital, the medical partner of this operation, oversees the coordination of the vaccination centre on the medical side. "We were called two or three days before 12 January,” she says. “It all went extremely fast. We had a first meeting with various stakeholders from the project coordinator Cocom, and the Saint-Pierre University Hospital, which was mandated to organise the entire medical set-up. And then, we had to meet with the Brussels Expo managers who provide the site, the infrastructure and all the logistics."
“At that time, we were told about the objectives,” she adds. “We were told: For 1 February, you have the Palais 1 available and you must be able to vaccinate 1,000 people a day, and one or two months later, 3,600 people a day. So, we have to build the teams, find the equipment, reactivate the partners. There’s not a minute to lose.”
"Everyone is in the starting blocks," explains Inge Even, the project coordinator at Cocom, whose role has been to find the right partners, sometimes experts and businesses who are not used to working together and bring them together to make it all happen.
Despite all the planning and preparedness, several challenges and unforeseen events have complicated the task of getting the centre up and running. One of the most important and uncertain elements has been the delivery and distribution of the vaccines.
Pfizer had initially announced that it would be able to deliver more vaccines than expected. This was good news that allowed the authorities to announce the acceleration of the vaccination programme. However, the company then announced a delivery delay. This problem was compounded by delivery delays with the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines as well.
This uncertainty has had a direct impact on the logistics of the vaccination centre. "We started with the Pfizer vaccine,” Catherine Bosman says. “So, we've defined all our preparation procedures, conservation procedures based on that. And last week, we were told 'no, finally it will be Moderna'. Therefore, all procedures need to be reviewed. The storage methods are not the same, we needed extra freezers. And finally, this week, we went back to Pfizer. I am now waiting to see what will actually be delivered to us. We're all for anything. We're preparing for all the possibilities. We'll have all the equipment, all the procedures and we'll see, in the end, what happens to us. These decisions are absolutely not in our hands."
In addition to the delay in vaccines, another pressing issue is the implementation of functional IT applications. "IT applications are not in our hands, but we are dependent on them,” Catherine Bosman says.
Vaccination will take place in two doses per person. Therefore, a tool is needed to be able to trace the vaccination and the person it has been administered to. "Vaccinating is not an innocuous gesture so there are a whole series of precautions to be taken and traceability related to episodes that may occur needs to be recorded,” Bosman adds. “There may be reasons for non-administration, minor or serious side effects and then you have to know who has been vaccinated."
Another important application needed is the one for making appointments. Since vaccines, especially those of Pfizer and Moderna, must meet strict retention procedures and be prepared shortly before being administered (the same day for Moderna), a functional application of appointments is essential to avoid wasting precious doses. "It is estimated that between 10 and 15% of people do not show up,” Bosman admits. “So, there is a risk that we have vaccines prepared that we will not be able to administer."
The fact that the centre cannot begin to operate without these applications shows how important they are. Cocom’s Inge Neven explains that "we had to negotiate with the federal government who wanted to release the applications by 1 March, but we wanted to go faster. So, we should have the final version very soon. As for the traceability tool, it will be ready this week." But, she says, "there may be things that need to be sorted out, even after."
Technical problems and uncertainty caused by delays in vaccine delivery are also compounded by the need to access the equipment in a very short period of time and in a market where global demand is exploding. Thankfully, Brussels Expo, which has its own suppliers and logistics teams, has provided invaluable expertise to locate and access the necessary equipment. Many providers which work with Brussels Expo on other events have provided help beyond their scope in a bid to do their part to end the pandemic.
"The medical side and the event side, we are on the same page,” says Catherine Bosman. “We think about the solutions and we are very reactive.”
“Coordinating between the organisational and medical side was the biggest challenge,” stresses Emin Luka, the chief operating officer of Brussels Expo. “But we are trying to find plans B to Plan A by working together in tandem."
One aspect the two sides are working closely on, one which may get overlooked by many, is the effort to make the whole vaccination experience as positive as possible. Whether it is the decoration at the centre, marking out areas, setting up safe and intimate places in case of problems or training vaccinators, keeping the human aspect is at the heart of everyone's concerns.
"We are carers first and foremost,” says Catherine Bosman. “So, we are extremely attentive to the quality of our welcome. That is what we are looking at when it comes to the recruitment of people. Everyone was briefed on the requirements, in terms of the quality of reception and the security of the process. We want the vaccination experience to be positive for the citizen, as much as possible, so we want to make it as enjoyable as possible."
There are still things to finalise but the centre at Palais 1 is almost ready. It now depends on the applications that the authorities need to put in place and the arrival of vaccines. "If they come," jokes Catherine Bosman.