Light at the End of the Tunnel?

The vaccinations update from the regional health authority popped up on my news feed late one Thursday evening in May. At 12.00 that Saturday morning bookings would be opening for those aged 50 to 59 – sooner than either Mr Blue-Shirt or I had thought they would get to our age-group, even though the vaccine programme had really been accelerating in recent weeks. Of course, simply being able to book our slots from Saturday was no indication of when those slots would actually be, but we both agreed it was still worth making our appointments as soon as we possibly could.

And sure enough, two days later at just before midday, Mr Blue-Shirt was sitting at his laptop with the Le Marche page of the Ministry of Health website on his screen and me peering over his left shoulder. The moment the clock in bottom right-hand corner of his screen slid from 11:59 to 12:00 he clicked on the big ‘book now’ button – and our hearts sank as a booking form immediately opened on a new tab. This being Italy, we assumed that we were about to be asked for every conceivable piece of personal information in order to secure our appointments, right down to pet’s maiden name and mother-in-law’s inside leg measurement. I pulled up a chair and sat down beside Mr Blue-Shirt: this could take some time.

As we started to scroll down to see what information was required, however, it quickly became clear that all we each needed to provide was name, date of birth, health service number, postcode and mobile phone number – and that was it! After a few seconds’ spooling – an indication of how many people were trying to do the same as us, we guessed – the screen changed to a calendar for our nearest vaccine centre, which happened to be about ten kilometres away on the trading estate just outside Macerata that Mr Blue-Shirt knows like the back of his hand. Even though it was barely five minutes since bookings had opened, the earliest available dates were already two weeks away. No matter: Mr Blue-Shirt immediately clicked on the earliest available slot, hit ‘next’ and instantly received a text message with a single-use verification code that he needed to enter on the ‘confirm booking’ screen that had already appeared. And as soon as he had entered the six-digit code, a confirmation message appeared on the screen (simultaneously accompanied by a text confirmation), along with a set of PDFs to download, including a booking confirmation, a consent form, a health questionnaire, medical information on the four different types of vaccine in use in Italy, and information on data protection.

“I think slots are going really fast, so let’s leave those for now and crack on with booking my appointment,” I said.
“Good idea. We can print everything once both appointments are confirmed,” said Mr Blue-Shirt as he clicked on the ‘book now’ button again. We quickly went through the same process with my details and within minutes, I had my appointment booked at the same time at the same vaccine centre, but 24 hours later than Mr Blue-Shirt’s: slots were definitely going fast. But we were in.

So a fortnight later we made two trips down to the trading estate – for Mr Blue-Shirt’s slot on Saturday and mine on Sunday – and followed the huge, bright yellow signs to the vaccine centre, which turned out to be a large vacant office building with lots of parking, arriving bang on time at 3.00pm. Comparing notes over the ice-cream Mr Blue-Shirt had promised me after I’d had my jab, it was clear that my experience had been almost identical to his…

Leaving Mr Blue-Shirt in the car with his book, I followed the arrows across the car park to the entrance, sanitised my hands, had my temperature read (35.9°C) and handed my paperwork to one of the team of Protezione Civile volunteers seated behind Perspex screens at the reception desk. The masked volunteer swiftly ticked my name off the list, gave me two more short forms to fill in and directed me through to a large, light-filled room about the size of a gymnasium to have my documents checked by one of the six or so doctors seated at Perspex-screen-topped desks lined up along one wall. There was little conversation to be heard other than the muffled exchanges between doctors and patients, but the mood was one of purposeful calm. I took the numbered ticket handed to me by another Protezione Civile volunteer, sat down on one of the few empty chairs that were set out in widely spaced rows facing the bank of doctors and filled in the new forms, which were no more than variations on the consent form I’d already filled in. By the time I had completed them, my ticket number had already appeared on the screen so I hastily bundled my papers together, went to the desk indicated and slid them under the Perspex screen to a young doctor with a tumble of black curls and heavy-framed glasses. He checked I’d signed everything in the right place and quickly went through my medical questionnaire, slowing down only to check my answers to the questions relating to allergies (none) and Covid-19 history (none). Satisfied with my responses, he scribbled ‘Pfizer’ in the relevant spaces on the forms, signed and stamped them, posted them back beneath the Perspex screen, directed me to the line of arrows across the floor that led out to a corridor and, as I stood up, called out the next number on the display screen – doubtless for the umpteenth time that day.

In the corridor, yet another Protezione Civile volunteer asked which jab I was having and then directed me to the queue for the relevant bank of temporary cubicles that had been erected down each side. Within no more than two minutes, I was shepherded into the first cubicle where a nurse invited me to take a seat and took my paperwork from me while another was already drawing up a syringe. It was all done with such practised ease that I barely had time to ask her to use my right arm as I’m left-handed. Once we had each turned right side to right side, I offered my arm, she inserted the needle, I felt a sharp ache as she pressed the plunger in, then the soothing cool of an antiseptic swab, and finally the childlike comfort of a gently-applied plaster. “A posto!” declared the nurse, tossing the used needle into the sharps bin. “That’s it!” Her colleague signed and returned my paperwork, ushered me out and instructed me to take a ticket from the dispenser at the end of the line of cubicles and wait to book an appointment for my second dose, reminding me not to leave for a full fifteen minutes in case I had an adverse reaction.

I sat down in the sunny waiting room where about five more Protezione Civile volunteers were handling the booking process. Even though there were about twenty people ahead of me, it was clear they were still getting through people very rapidly, and in the end, I only waited about five minutes until my number appeared on the screen. The volunteer scanned my health service card, took my 1st dose paperwork from me, swapped it for the paperwork for my 2nd dose, for which she gave me a date just over a month later, and finally printed out two QR code stickers, one with details my 1st dose, and one with details of my appointment for my 2nd. And by the time we were done – less than half an hour since I had entered the building – I still had five minutes to go before I could leave and head back to the café in the village for that ice-cream Mr Blue-Shirt had promised me.

That weekend, 1,076,928 jabs were administered in Italy. Mr Blue-Shirt and I were extremely pleased to be part of the fantastic national effort that meant that two of them were ours.

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