'It's what we've been working for,' say doctors among first to receive COVID-19 vaccine

At 8am on Monday morning, Dr Richard Cracknell became one of the first Australians to receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. For him and his wife, Dr Katie Maclean, it has been a very long year.

Both Katie and Richard are emergency specialist doctors working in the same Sydney hospital. Katie will receive her first vaccine dose on Wednesday. They told Eternity that they feel privileged to be among the first to be vaccinated.

“It feels good to be seeing this next stage become a reality,” said Richard. “This is what we’ve been working for and planning for.”

When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Richard says he found it hard to get on board with the doomsday predictions – suggestions that the Australian healthcare system would quickly be overwhelmed with coronavirus cases.

Australia’s current negative COVID tally has not come without a cost to healthcare workers.

“But it was those predictions that led to what can only be called an amazing response from our healthcare system,” said Richard. “And they got more right than they got wrong!”

Both Katie and Richard lead teams of other doctors in their work, and agree that one of the hardest parts of the last year has been trying to quell the fears of many they work with. As Australia watched the experience of places like Italy back in March 2020, when thousands and thousands of people contracted the virus and Italian hospitals were put under severe strain, some of Katie and Richard’s colleagues decided to temporarily live separately from their families, to protect them from the virus. They worked in full personal protective equipment – gloves, mask, gown, goggles. They monitored closely what they brought into their homes. Getting sick wasn’t just about their own safety, but not being able to work would put more strain on other hospital staff. The burden was heavy.

“In the work I do, I see the fragility of life, and it’s part of what has helped form my faith.” – Katie Maclean

It was physically taxing and emotionally draining. Australia’s current negative COVID tally has not come without a cost to healthcare workers.

“It’s been challenging to maintain a vigilance to detect COVID and protect our staff,” said Richard. “That has been never-ending. It’s a dozen conversations every day as to what we need to do to keep people safe. But it has paid off.”

Katie and Richard attend an Anglican church in southern Sydney and say that while COVID hasn’t changed their faith, it has highlighted truths they learned early and relearn every day as medical professionals.

“In the work I do, I see the fragility of life, and it’s part of what has helped form my faith,” said Katie. “[COVID-19] is another example of that fragility – just on a global scale! It reinforces my need for something much bigger than what’s here right now. That’s God.”

Pictures of Richard receiving the vaccination on Monday will be used on posters for NSW Health, designed to encourage others to get the voluntary vaccination. He says he is confident of the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“The roll out of the vaccine adds to the layers of protection we have [against COVID-19] and makes that protective layer so much deeper. Whilst ever we still have people returning from overseas, we’ll still have breakouts. But this addition has a good chance of making us secure. Those small micro breaches will become much less effective.”

Both doctors will receive the Pfizer vaccine, along with thousands of frontline workers and aged-care residents expected to receive the jab in the next three weeks – 35,000 in NSW alone. A second dose of the vaccine is required 21 days after the first dose, and then there is a further seven days before a person is protected against COVID-19. The Australian Government has announced the vaccination rollout will be conducted in three phases, with priority given to the elderly, healthcare workers and high-risk people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Both Katie and Richard said they were in awe of the science behind the development of the COVID-19 vaccines in record time.

“I think it’ll go down as one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of all time,” said Katie. “It will be looked back on in history as one of those moments, like sending people to the moon. It’s a huge act of science, and a lot of scientists are really excited by the whole process,” she said.

The speed of development for the vaccine has caused a degree of skepticism in the wider community. But Richard says both the Pfizer vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine, that will be manufactured in Australia and become the most widely available option, have undergone strenuous testing that he and other doctors and scientists trust.

“We really believe the vaccine will turn this thing around.” – Katie Maclean

The Pfizer vaccine underwent Stage 3 clinical trials that included over 40,000 participants across six countries.

“I’m also confident that independently these large scientific groups have come up with similar technology and similar efficacies. That’s something that’s very reassuring. You question things when no one else can reproduce whatever the novel effect is. But we’ve seen it happen in independent streams with the same effects,” said Richard.

“The speed [of development] reflects focus and money that’s gone into it. And that is unprecedented.”

“Given the same amount of intense money and focus, sadly, almost anything else could be cured, I think, in this same timeframe,” Katie added. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen this amount of money or focus thrown at anything before. You end up wondering what could happen if we threw the same amount at curing malaria … What would the world look like even next year?”

Having both been doctors for over 30 years, Katie and Richard say they’ve seen the impact that vaccines can have in reducing death and the severity of illnesses, including meningitis and HIV.

“We’ve seen vaccines turn around illnesses in our professional lives. They have changed the pattern of illness and reduced hospitalisations and deaths,” said Richard.

“We really believe the vaccine will turn this thing around,” Katie added.