Flemish vaccination centres open today: how getting your vaccine works

Flemish vaccination centres open today: how getting your vaccine works
Illustraticaon image of vaccination centre at Heysel. Credit: Belga

Following some trial runs and several supply issues, the first vaccination centres in Flanders officially open their doors today.

The first vaccination centre in Beringen, in the Limburg province, opens at noon today, when first-line care providers - such as general practitioners, dentists and home care nurses - are invited and will come by, one by one according to their reservations.

The final tests of the IT systems and the different scenarios, which were held on Friday by the Flemish Agency for Care and Health, went well. The Beringen centre has a maximum capacity of 2,000 vaccinations per day, and 8 vaccination lines.

After a start-up period with one or two lines, the local authorities want to be fully operational by 1 March. "We received 300 vaccines yesterday, of which 100 will be administered today, and 200 next week," chief medical officer Leen Bouwen told VRT NWS.

By the end of the week, the 94 other centres in Flanders will also open, and 10,000 shots should be administered.

However, as only AstraZeneca's vaccines will be available initially, only healthcare providers between 18 and 55 years are eligible. From March, people with an underlying condition and those over 65 years old will be vaccinated. After that, it will be the turn of the general public.

"Everyone who turns 18 this year will receive an invitation in their mailbox, including people whose birthday is later in the year," Franken Robben, CEO of government company Smals, which designed the backbone of the vaccination centres, told De Tijd.

How will you get invited?

About two weeks before their vaccination is scheduled to take place, people whose e-mail address or mobile phone number is available to the government (which is about 80% of the population), will receive an invitation with a unique QR code through these channels. The government has these data via the health insurance funds.

The other 20% will receive a letter by post.

The IT system for those invitations was tested in some vaccination centres last week and will be operational from today, according to Robben.

"The first two weeks will be focused on healthcare providers, who we can reach directly," he said, adding that the large roll-out will follow from March. "Of course, teething problems may occur, but in a fortnight we will get that fine-tuned."

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Can you choose when to go to a centre?

In Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent, people will be able to reserve a time slot, as there are several centres, and people will be able to choose the location that suits them best.

All other centres in Flanders will suggest a time slot. However, if the proposed time does not suit you, you can make a new appointment online or by telephone.

In both cases, this will concern two time slots (one for the first and one for the second vaccination), except for the Johson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose.

What info will be in the invitation?

The invitation letter will provide a lot of information to answer a number of possible questions that people could have about being vaccinated: Should you be vaccinated? Why is it important? When should you come? What do you need to do? What if you are pregnant, have tested positive or have an acute illness?

People who do not want to be vaccinated, can indicate that and will not receive any more emails, text messages or letters.

People who still have questions after reading the info in the invitation, can find the contact details of a help centre on the letter or are advised to contact their GP or pharmacist. Online, the letter will be available in 40 languages.

What happens to your data?

All data is anonymised, including for people with an underlying (chronic) condition, but will be kept in a central database, according to Robben.

This way, the government can see whether someone who has received a vaccine still tests positive later. Additionally, in case people experience side effects, it can be checked which vaccine they received.

What if you do not show up for your appointment?

People who have not rebooked their slot to another date in advance will lose their place and end up at the back of the queue.

However, the Health and Care Agency urges people to always rebook their appointment if they cannot make the suggested time, or to immediately indicate if they do not want to be vaccinated, so their doses can go to someone else.

How does the process of getting a vaccination work?

In each centre, there are several vaccination lines. In each line, one type of vaccine is administered, which will account for 20 to 25 vaccinations per hour. In the large centres, there are vaccination boxes, where people will stay seated.

A receptionist will check people's identity details and scan their QR code. A healthcare worker will give you information about the vaccine, and discuss your medical history and state of health with you.

Then you will go to the vaccination space, where a nurse will administer the shot in your upper arm. After the vaccination, you must remain seated for 15 minutes, and a doctor will monitor that there are no allergic reactions.

What happens to possible surpluses?

All centres can make quick bookings if, for example, they estimate at 2:00 PM that they will have surpluses, which can happen if they take extra doses from a vial, or if people do not turn up.

They can then call people up via mobile phone or e-mail. "To avoid too many surpluses at the end of the day, I think it is a good idea for centres to do some overbooking at the start, just like with airlines," said Robben.

The bookings are made by the centre, as they know the local environment best, and can anticipate situations where, for example, an older couple has received a separate booking but still wants to come together for mobility reasons.

What happens if the vaccination strategy is changed again?

Belgium's vaccination strategy has already changed when it was decided not to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 55, and supply problems have and can still change the timing as well.

Additionally, it is also possible that the more infections virus variants will upset the strategy and the government may decide, for example, to administer the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine after 42 days instead of 21.

According to Robben, the advantage of the current IT system is that it is applied locally but managed centrally.

"In the event of major changes, it is possible to rebook tens of thousands of people and shift bookings around," he said. "The local centres receive the database and can decide who to call on, and when."

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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