Ugandan health workers relieved to be vaccinated against COVID-19

The frontline medical workers attended to hundreds of COVID-19 patients on a daily basis

By Joachim Buwembo
Health worker vaccinated
© UNICEF/UN0428774/Bongyereirwe
12 March 2021

For twelve solid months, Uganda’s medics stoically endured grave anxiety that the general public never got to realize. When the first COVID-19 case was identified in Uganda in March 2020, everything changed as everyone started taking precautions to avoid getting close to everyone. But for the health workers it was the opposite, as it was time to get close to the confirmed and suspected infected persons.

As the numbers of cases kept growing, vigilance also increased and soon enough the country went into lockdown and isolation centres were set up in the major hospitals.

The frontline medical workers went into fighting mode.

At the usually crowded Mulago National Referral Hospital - in Kampala capital city, family physician Dr. Denis Kamara recalls the eerie atmosphere; for everyone who was not staff was either suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19.

up close of AstraZaneca vaccine
© UNICEF/UN0429037/Bongyereirwe

HEALTH WORKERS SHARE MORE INSIGHTS

“For us it was a suicide mission, simple!” he says. “We knew we were at great risk but it is our calling. We were certainly aware of the danger more than anybody so we protected ourselves very seriously, knowing we had to stay alive in order to save others. So, we took our protection gear – the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – very seriously.”

While the whole city around them was deserted, inside the hospital complex the patients were many and increasing in number by the day.

“We tested many, many people,” Dr. Kamara recalls. “They were mostly long distance truck drivers from all the countries around us and Ugandans returning from the then high risk countries. The incidence was very high, though most of the patients were asymptomatic. We treated and treated people!”

A health worker being vaccinated
© UNICEF/UN0428581/Bongyereirwe
Uganda's Health Minister
© UNICEF/UN0428597/Bongyereirwe

Dr. Kamara makes an observation that is not obvious to the public though, “Although many health workers were infected in the line of duty, some seriously and even with fatalities, it was mostly those who were not on the immediate frontline! Those of us who were always in direct contact with the patients largely remained uninfected and this is because of the extra care we took to protect ourselves. But it also means that because we had the highest level of exposure, we suffered the highest level of anxiety. But this was a war and we suppressed the personal anxieties and did the job. Unfortunately for our colleagues further from the frontline, they were exposed to all manner of patients some of them with asymptomatic COVID-19 infection, yet they had less PPE cover. So they got more infected and some fatally. I am glad now we are all protected as health workers with the vaccine.”

Dr. Denis Kamara
© UNICEF/UN0428763/Bongyereirwe

His relief is shared by Dr. Prossy Namusisi, a general practitioner who also has been on the frontline at MNRH since the disease was confirmed in Uganda exactly one year earlier to the day the first AstraZeneca vaccine dose was administered in Uganda on March 10th, 2021. Dr Namusisi, who has all along been treating COVID-19 patients uses almost the same words as Dr. Kamara.

“I am so happy that as of today, I am protected,” she said before disclosing her greatest fear which she had lived with for a year: the daily fear of picking the infection from the hundreds of patients she saw every day and taking it home to her family.

Dr. Deogratius Munube
© UNICEF/UN0428767/Bongyereirwe

She also vividly remembers the patients who didn’t make it, in their last moments as they struggled for breath, ironically under oxygen, as they ‘fail to breathe their last,’ knowing very well that in the time she spent working on them she could have picked the virus.

“There were also longer moments of being overwhelmed when good colleagues I was working with died from the COVID-19, they included a senior consultant,” Namusisi recalls. “But amidst the personal grief, you have to continue because lives have to be saved.”

UPDF and Ministry of Health workers
© UNICEF/UN0428761/Bongyereirwe
COVID-19 vaccination card held by health worker
© UNICEF/UN0428762/Bongyereirwe

For Dr. Deogratias Munube, consultant pediatrician also at Mulago National Referral Hospital, the safety of his fellow health workers was his main preoccupation. For it was his role, owing to his extra specialty in infections and infections care, to re-sensitize and give specific training to colleagues on enhancing their safety and optimizing the PPEs.

Dr. Munube recalls that at the beginning, there was hardly any difference between medics and lay persons as fear and bemusement reigned high.

“Some staff had even stopped coming to work!” he recalls. “We had to re-assure them through leading by example.”

Vaccination point at Mulago
© UNICEF/UN0428770/Bongyereirwe

This meant refreshing their skills and updating them so that they would all effectively be applying the safety measures and competently using the equipment and their own PPEs.

So bad it was at the beginning that staff attendance had dropped from 100 per cent to 50 per cent. After training the health workers and availing them with adequate PPEs, the attendance to work at MNRH recovered and is now at 80 percent.

“The health workers now feel safer,” says Dr. Munube. “And I do feel safer because I know that the vaccine is effective and safe.”

Vaccine cold storage
© UNICEF/UN0428772/Bongyereirwe

Their fear has not been without justification; for the 1,900 medics who got infected since COVID-19 entered Uganda, 19 have died. With the vaccine now available and the health workers being the first one to get it, this ironically poetic statistic should hopefully remain static.

Heading to the vaccination point with safety boxes
© UNICEF/UN0428776/Bongyereirwe