UZH COVID-19 Vaccination Center

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”

Jan Fehr and his team have set up the first reference vaccination center for the canton of Zurich. Vaccinations started on Monday. In our interview, the head of UZH’s Public and Global Health Department talks about some of the personnel and logistical challenges involved in establishing the new center.

Marita Fuchs

Jan Fehr
Jan Fehr
“Vaccinations started on 4 January,” says Jan Fehr, head of UZH’s Public and Global Health Department. (Image: zVg.)

Jan Fehr, last March, the UZH Travel Clinic was repurposed as a coronavirus testing center. On 4 January, it took up operations as the first reference vaccination center for the canton of Zurich. Who can get vaccinated at the center?

Jan Fehr: People at higher risk from COVID-19. These include people aged 75 or older, or people who have serious pre-existing health conditions regardless of their age. People who meet these criteria can make an appointment and get vaccinated at our center at Hirschengraben in Zurich. Appointments can be made online at https://coronazentrum.uzh.ch or through the canton’s medical hotline 0800 336 655. If you have a serious pre-existing condition, you need to be referred to the center by your doctor.

The UniversityHospital Zurich will also begin vaccinating patients in early January, and nursing homes and GPs will follow suit shortly thereafter.

Why the priority list?

We initially expect to have 36,000 vaccine doses available. This means we need to decide which groups get the vaccination first. The canton of Zurich is following the recommendations of the Federal Commission for Vaccination and the Federal Office of Public Health’s vaccination strategy. In the first phase, the goal is to prevent severe cases and deaths and reduce the burden on the healthcare system.

That’s why the first target priority group is people aged 75 or older, with or without pre-existing conditions. In addition, adults with chronic medical conditions are also at a higher risk of suffering severe COVID-19 symptoms and may also get vaccinated first, regardless of their age. This includes people with special and serious forms of cardiovascular, respiratory and kidney diseases, obesity, weakened immune systems, high blood pressure or diabetes. The second jab is given at our center four weeks after the first.

When did the vaccine arrive?

The vaccine arrived with a police escort early last week. We’re using the vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, which needs to be stored in deep freezers at -80° to -70° C.

The vaccine race has turned deep freezers into a hot commodity. Do you have enough freezers?

Yes, we planned ahead. You also need to take into account that for every deep freezer that’s in use, you need to have a back-up freezer in case it breaks down.

How prepared were you for being the canton’s reference vaccination center?

Of course we would have liked to have had more rest before starting, rather than 10 months’ of combating the pandemic. But then you also have to admit that we’re incredibly lucky that the new Travel Clinic took up operations just in time, right before the first wave. We were able to use its new infrastructure and build on the long-standing vaccination expertise of the largest travel clinic in Switzerland.

The flexible setting provided by the Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Prevention Institute (EBPI) also helps. I’m also very fortunate to have such a great team supporting me. The COVID-19 vaccination project is led by Dr. Matthias Reinacher, who is highly knowledgeable in the fields of medicine, IT as well as management. The devil’s in the detail, however, and at first it all seemed to be too much, but I always remember a quote by Nelson Mandela, who said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Impfzelt
Impfzelt
Vaccination tent at Hirschengraben 82 in Zurich. (Image: zVg.)

Were you able to find enough staff for the vaccination line at such short notice?

My team, the UZH task force and the UZH Human Resources office all went above and beyond to support our center. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them very much for this. We now have a total of 73 employees helping us with the vaccinations and recording data in the vaccination card. Emergency medical staff are on hand in case anyone suffers an allergic reaction, and the relevant contingency planning and training are also in place.

The vaccination center is a so-called reference laboratory. What exactly does this mean?

We’re the first vaccination center in the canton of Zurich and gathering information on all levels, from logistics and handling the vaccine to training staff, IT processes as well as vaccine acceptance in the population.

This experience will be used to tweak the processes, and it will also be made available to other vaccination centers in the canton. We’re also constantly gathering information on all new vaccines that are approved, which results in a steady stream of insights.

Which vaccines are these?

We’re first using Cominarty from Pfizer/BioNTech, which has to be stored at ultra-low temperatures of -80° to -70° C. Swissmedic is currently also reviewing approval for further vaccines, for example the mRNA vaccine from Moderna. This one also needs to be stored in freezing temperatures of around -20° C. And there’s also the AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be stored in regular fridges.

Are you also involved in research around the vaccination process?

The large-scale Corona Immunitas study, run by UZH and the Swiss School of Public Health, aims to gather reliable data on the rate of infection in Switzerland and shed more light on immunity against SARS-CoV-2. Milo Puhan, who heads up the EBPI, is coordinating and leading the national study, and together we’re trying to move this large-scale project forward. Many of the study’s visits are held in the UZH’s corona center – that is, the new Travel Clinic. Expanding on the Corona Immunitas study, we’ll then also turn our focus to questions surrounding vaccination and immune response. Our center provides the ideal platform for this.

How do you view the danger presented by the new coronavirus mutations spreading across Switzerland?

As things stand, it doesn’t look like the available vaccines will be any less effective for the new mutations that recently surfaced. But it’s important that we now quickly get a grip on the pandemic – and this of course means carrying out vaccinations and strictly following the relevant safety measures. We can only control the pandemic if we’re one step ahead of the virus, and unfortunately this has not yet been the case. 

As the head of the Public and Global Health Department at UZH, how do you view the pandemic from an international point of view?

I’m currently seeing an increase in national self-interests, where people’s ideas and actions aren’t extending beyond their own country’s borders. But the pandemic is global. We must show solidarity, work hand in hand, and include other countries, especially the poorer ones, in our plans, as coronavirus is a global rather than a local issue.

Marita Fuchs, Editor UZH News

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