A Glimmer of Hope
In every issue of Shine we choose a topic
that is pertinent to older people and ask an
older writer to investigate. This month we
focus on The Vaccine and the hope it
inspires for all of us in Leeds.
By Ruth Steinberg
Im a storyteller. I have enjoyed writing for Shine, and you may have seen a couple of the stories I’ve written. When I was asked to write something for this issue about the new Covid vaccines I knew there would be some good stories.
Sometimes it feels like we are living through one of Grimm’s fairy tales. An evil spell has been cast over the world. The hero or heroine has to go on a quest to break that spell. But this is no fairy tale. This was our world in 2020. I’m writing this just as the year turns, we have said a thankful goodbye to 2020 and now look towards the future. The light is returning, and we believe that spring will come again. It’s been a hard winter and a hard year. I was born in 1952, not long after World War 2. I would often wonder what it was like to live through a world war. Many of you do know what it was like to live through 6 years of fighting, without knowing the end of the story. It did end. And here we are 75 years later. Now it is 2021 and we are living through this new battle of sorts, this world-wide epidemic. To limit the spread of infection it has been necessary to have to be separate from our loved ones, friends, family, indeed anyone outside our bubble. We have to wear a mask. Things we took for granted like going to the library or popping down to the shops are now memories. We’ve had months and months of living in lockdown. It wasn’t all over by Christmas and we don’t know how long it will go on.
Around this time last year new words and phrases came into our lives. Words like Covid, coronavirus, pandemic, herd immunity, flattening the curve, shielding, lockdown. This magazine Shine was born out of challenging the isolation and loneliness that came with the government regulations. We have now lived for a year with the ever-present threat of infection. It’s like being in the depths of winter with little light and cold and it seems to go on for ever. We certainly needed something that could bring some inkling that this won’t go on forever, that could break the spell. The news of the arrival of the new vaccines has done just that. There is a now a glimmer of hope that there could be an end to this pandemic. We will meet each other again.
When I was born, the NHS was only 4 years old and I was lucky to benefit from it. I remember going to the “Welfare” to get our orange juice and vitamins and it was where I received my vaccinations. I was protected from many diseases that were around at the time, (measles, mumps, polio, TB) that had devastated previous generations. But I didn’t really know anything about vaccines or viruses. You may have read the story I wrote in the first edition of this magazine. It was about Len, my husband, who is 83. Among the many things about him is the fact that he is a doctor, a GP and has been working from home on the NHS 111 Corona phone line. So, I asked him to help me understand words like virus, pandemic and vaccine. Words we now hear every day.
First I asked, “What is coronavirus?”
Len: The first thing to understand is that every cell in our body works by producing chemical compounds. They may be used to repair the cell itself or do other work in the body. For example, some of these compounds are hormones like oestrogen and testosterone. Every cell has a “genetic code” that tells it what to do: what compounds to make. The genetic code is a string of molecules that sit in a special part of the cell, the nucleus, and act as the cell’s manager. Viruses are strings of molecules that get inside cells. They subvert the cell’s management, so that the cell begins to produce just more viruses, instead of doing its proper work.
This is what the coronavirus does in the lining of our lungs. It damages the cells there. This is why people who have Covid have difficulty breathing. The damaged cells also make the patient cough
and spread more virus in the air. Viruses use different tricks to get inside the cell. The coronavirus uses the projections all over its body. As though it were covered with grappling hooks that attack cells.
So, the vaccine is here.
We have hope.
The Spell is broken.
Things are tough right now but 2021 has to be better than 2020.
Then I asked, “What is a vaccine?”
Len: Floating in our blood is an amazing squad of “immune system” cells, like soldiers with special weapons to fight infections. Some are like secret agents. They can detect anything that is a foreign substance, like a virus. They attach to it a marker, an “antibody”. If the foreign substance is a virus, the antibody gets in the way of the virus’s attack. Also, there are other cells in the blood that look for things marked with antibodies, ingest them (eat them up) and destroy them.
At the same time, a message is sent to yet other cells to make antibodies and release them into the blood stream: ‘Lots of antibodies needed! Hurry up!’ When the coronavirus attacks, our immune cells notice the projections, the virus’s grappling hooks and use that information to attack the virus. When someone getsbetter, it is because their body has produced so many antibodies that viruses cannot overcome them and die off.
To make the vaccine, scientists have identified the art of the virus’s genetic code that forces the infected cell to produce the virus’s projections, the grappling hooks. They then found a way to make our cells produce a lot of these harmless projections and put them out in the blood in large amounts. Our immune system recognises these projections as a foreign substance and produces masses of antibodies against them. So, if real viruses get into the blood in future, our immune system is primed to fight anything that has projections. Viruses beware!
So, a vaccine is a way of priming our immune system to fight an infection, and this is the way the coronavirus vaccine works. When we get the vaccine, our immune system is primed to fight the coronavirus infection with an injection that does not contain the virus and cannot make us ill. Magic.
A wonderful thing about the coronavirus vaccine has been how quickly it was developed. The story started with Chinese scientists discovering the virus’s genetic code and letting the whole world have the result, within a couple of weeks of the first cases. Scientists all over the world started working out different strategies for killing the virus or stopping it attacking our cells. There has never been so much collaboration between different countries, laboratories, universities, hospitals and pharmaceutical firms. This is the reason why we now have several safe, effective vaccines made in record time.
When you get a vaccine you have enough of the information your body needs to make the defences and build the immune response. It takes a few weeks for the body to build that up. So, it is important to not rush to meet people after getting your 2 injections. I also asked Len if someone has had the vaccine does that mean they can’t pass on the infection. The answer unfortunately is that we don’t know. It’s too early to know that. And we don’t know how long the immunity lasts. So, we have to carry on being careful. There are some people who are understandably worried that maybe scientists cut corners or were too quick, and maybe the vaccine wasn’t safe. But I am assured that they wouldn’t have released it until they had done tests with a large number of volunteers. They work to very strong safeguards. The spread of the Coronavirus last year was particularly cruel as the people most likely to get it were older people and people with underlying conditions. For those of us who fall into those categories it has been a particularly difficult year. There have been many losses and challenges. So, I am pleased that the roll out of the vaccine has been to our oldest people who are in their 80s, 90s, and over 100, as well as frontline medical staff. It is a welcome change that we have a society that thinks about the most vulnerable first.
The night we went for Len’s first shot of the vaccine was a dark and stormy one. It was just before Christmas the wind howled and there was driving rain. We arrived at the appointed surgery and we saw queue going right round the building: 80 and 90-year-olds with their umbrellas and their hoods up. But the medical team were beautifully organised and quickly we were in, done and dusted. The atmosphere was joyous. Not a surprise with all the doom and gloom that we have been living through. A move towards normality - whatever that is!
We also heard from a number of people who were among the first to have their vaccinations.
One was Frank Cooke, the first person vaccinated in North Leeds. He is 84 with 2 grandchildren, aged 5 and 7. He was contacted by text by his surgery. “I arrived at 7.45am and got my injection at 9. It took more time than it should, what with the fuss of the TV people. The injection itself took less than a minute.” When asked how he felt he said, “I feel very privileged indeed. My wife is 81 and is going for hers soon.” He went on, “I can’t say anything higher than get it done. It only takes a minute, and I had no side effects whatsoever. I’m over the moon.” When asked what he was looking forward to he said, “Meeting up with my grandchildren.” And, “Go, go, go! Without a shadow of a doubt, go get it done. It’s incredible. I can’t believe I’ve had it. Can’t wait until I get the second dose.”
Frank Taylor awaiting the vaccine
Linda Glew from Time to Shine told us about another older person she knows. Linda said “She has had her jab today and tells me it is very efficient and that she felt very safe. She was asked one odd question though. Bearing in mind that they are only vaccinating those over 80. They asked, was she pregnant? I know it is the season where we are to believe in miracles but - wow!”
From a Leeds Older People’s Forum Trustee; “I go for my corona vaccination on Thursday at 9.30am. I was first invited to have the vaccine by telephone last Wednesday and accepted. Why wouldn't I? Anything to be released from the prison of all year. Thursday’s vaccination will be the best Christmas present and January’s will be the best birthday present. Light at the end of the tunnel? Of course there is.”
So those are some of the stories from the last year. What about the future? I wrote this in the first half of January. The plans for getting the vaccine to everyone is a mammoth task. NHS England boss Sir Simon Stevens told MPs the vaccine programme would involve two “sprints” and a “marathon”.
He told the Commons Public Accounts Committee: “This is a sprint to mid-February (to vaccinate the four highest priority groups) and then it will be a sprint from mid-February through to the end of April to extend the vaccination to the rest of the higher risk groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Then it will be a marathon from April through the summer into the autumn... where we are offering everybody in the country who wants it, over the age of 18 for whom the vaccines are authorised, that jab.”
At least two million people will be vaccinated against Covid-19 every week, ministers have said as they set out the plans for the biggest vaccination programme in UK history.
So, the vaccine is here. We have hope. The Spell is broken. Things are tough right now but 2021 has to be better than 2020. If you are reading this, you might have already had the vaccine. If not, you’ll get yours soon. And if you’re anxious or concerned, listen to the stories of friends or family members and they’ll tell you how simple and quick it is. In the words of Frank Taylor: “Go, go, go!”
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