Life of a Covid vaccine volunteer: ‘You don’t go for team-building drinks on a Friday’

Ireland’s busiest vaccination centre in the Citywest Hotel in Dublin 24
Working as a volunteer in the country’s busiest vaccination centre has challenges, but humour and solidarity gets you through

When you present at a vaccination centre to receive your Covid-19 jab, the first person you’ll be greeted by will be a cheerful volunteer dressed in bright orange who, without much by way of a preamble, will ask whether you think you might need to use the bathroom in the next 40 minutes.

How do I know that? Because if you receive your vaccination at Ireland’s busiest centre in the Citywest Hotel in Dublin 24, that unpaid volunteer could well be me.

I offered my services as a volunteer, in any capacity, when the pandemic first arrived in March 2020. At the time, I envisaged delivering hot meals to pensioners for the few weeks it would take this whole mini-drama to play out.

The response I received was a polite, “Thank you for your interest”, email. If you ever need an ego check, try offering to work for free at a time of national crisis, and have the recipient say, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”.

That summer, I was finally deployed. I began working as a volunteer at the testing centre in Tallaght Stadium. At first, we worked in the car park of Shamrock Rovers’ home ground with no shelter from the wind, rain and sun.

Testing centre volunteer Eoin Butler at Citywest – raining (again)
Testing centre volunteer Eoin Butler at Citywest – raining (again)

Our job was to greet the public when they arrived by car, find their appointment on a printout, pass them on to staff from the Health Service Executive who would print off the relevant paperwork, which we would then tuck under the car’s windscreen wiper and send them on their way.

I remember for one of my first shifts I wore a brand new pair of navy jeans. Rain poured down that entire afternoon. When I undressed back home that evening, both of my legs were dyed bright blue and I had to scrub them clean before going to bed.

At drive-through testing, you’d get a car filled with people who were pale and wheezing. Sometimes you’d be tempted to say, ‘Listen, I can probably spare you the suspense’

In October, we moved to the Citywest Hotel in Saggart, and a volunteer co-ordinator, Fiona, gave us a tour of the facility. The main arena, which had previously hosted large conferences and boxing matches, had been transformed into an enormous field hospital. This was contingency planning for a worst-case scenario that, thankfully, never came to pass.

If the tour was intended to scare the daylights out of us, it 100 per cent had the desired effect. From then on, I don’t think I ever momentarily wore my mask under my chin, forgot to sanitise my hands or failed to maintain social distancing.

After Christmas, things were rough. For months the positivity test rate had been about 2-3 per cent. In January, it was 25 per cent. At drive-through testing, you’d get a car filled with people who were pale and wheezing. Sometimes you’d be tempted to say, “Listen, I can probably spare you the suspense”. But you didn’t. You processed them, maintained social distancing and gave them the same words of encouragement you would anyone else.

Even in the worst of times, morale among the volunteers was always good. The odd thing about volunteering at such a large facility, where the work is repetitive and the roles are rotated frequently, is that you never quite forge strong personal relationships with any of your colleagues.

You work with someone for a shift and then don’t see them again for a few days or weeks. You’re all wearing masks and it’s not like you go for team-building drinks on a Friday night. But everyone is working for free. No one is there because they’re forced to be. There is a general esprit de corps which means that, when you’re posted with some unfamiliar person, you can pick up the conversation with them as colleagues and friends, even if you’re not entirely certain you’ve ever met them before.

One common scenario often plays out as follows: I park in the car park upon arrival, wearing my mask, and am greeted warmly by a fellow volunteer who has also just arrived. They say, “Hey Eoin, how are you doing?” I look at this stranger and think, I’ve never seen you before in my entire life. Then, as they come closer, and put on their mask, I say, “Sorry Eileen, I didn’t know you without the mask”.

Like a lot of things in the pandemic, this seems surreal the first time it happens but it quickly becomes routine.

One of my go-to lines when a nervous child in a Dublin GAA jersey comes in for a Covid test is to say, ‘I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you... Mayo are going to beat the Dubs this year’

In March, the field hospital in Citywest’s main arena was transformed into a vaccination centre. Our volunteer head, Tricia, is a musician in real life. She installed a piano in the centre which she sometimes plays to entertain the public while they queue. When the Dutch ambassador came in for his jab, he gave us all tulips.

The word “cohort” soon became part of our daily conversation. The first question you ask when you arrive to start your shift is, “Who’s in today?”. You’re told it’s 52 year-olds and they’re getting Pfizer – or whatever it happens to be.

After a whole day processing thousands of 52-year-olds, you become so attuned that if a 51-year-old dared to sneak in, you’d spot him across the car park before he even got out of his car.

One of my go-to lines when a nervous child in a Dublin GAA jersey comes in for a Covid test is to say, “I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you... Mayo are going to beat the Dubs this year”. To be clear, I’m from Mayo and I am serious about that statement. But it makes the parents laugh and puts children at ease.

When we moved from testing to vaccination, I tried a variant on this line. I was leading a group of five people to receive their jabs. There were four slots free in the first row of vaccination booths we came to, so I sent the first four people in that direction. The fifth man was wearing a Dublin jersey. I led him to the next row of booths saying, “This is the bold corner. It’s where we put Dublin supporters”.

The look of alarm and confusion on that poor man’s face – I had to bend over backwards assuring him I wasn’t serious. Suffice to say that line was dropped from my repertoire of cheesy jokes.

If there’s one thing that unites all of the cohorts, it’s the delight with which they receive their “I got my Covid-19 vaccine” badge. One woman seemed embarrassed at how overjoyed she was in accepting this cheap souvenir.

Tricia Nolan, manager of the South Dublin County Volunteer Centre, playing the piano as people queue at the Citywest vaccination centre. Photograph: Alan Betson
Tricia Nolan, manager of the South Dublin County Volunteer Centre, playing the piano as people queue at the Citywest vaccination centre. Photograph: Alan Betson

She said: “I’m a retired teacher. This is like something we’d have given to junior or senior infants. If you gave this to third or fourth class, they’d just look at you.” I was able to assure her, truthfully, that a Garda city centre unit had been in for their jabs the previous day. Big strapping lads. Their reaction to the badges had been every bit as enthusiastic.

Our volunteers come from all over the world. One morning I was charged with training in a new volunteer, a big, lovely guy from Africa. One of the standard instructions you give to people when they arrive for vaccination is, “Make sure you have photo ID ready”.

Sometimes people think this means they need to show you their photo ID. When this happens, you clarify, “No, you don’t need to show it to me. But you will need it for registration inside”.

After I’d gone through this routine 30 or 40 times, I invited the new recruit to have a go. He greeted the next woman who approached with a stern, “Madam, please do you have photo ID”. She looked flustered and began rooting around in her handbag. He stood there and said nothing for 30 seconds while she scrambled for some ID to show him.

Finally, when she produced her public service card, he said, “I don’t need to see that”, and sent her on her way. The woman looked completely flummoxed.

Some people have a tendency to micromanage. Not me. I thought the new recruit was so close to being right that I decided to just leave well enough alone. He continued to greet people the same way that whole morning.

The vaccination centre is the glamorous side of the job. But I volunteer three days a week and typically two of those days are still in the decidedly less glamorous Covid testing centre. Here, there are few VIP visitors. Nobody is posing for selfies. The average punter is a put-upon parent bringing their child in for testing for the 17th time.

I sat down in my kitchen, thought about the enormity of everything that’s happened to our country, and our people, in the past 18 months. And I cried my eyes out

Perhaps the most challenging day we had was Friday, May 14th. I heard news of the HSE cyberattack on the radio over breakfast that morning. Funnily enough, I listened with benign interest but it never occurred to me it would have any impact on my work that day. It did.

All of our appointment data was lost. This meant when cars arrived, we had to write down, in pen on paper, in the rain (and it rained for virtually all of May), the name, full address, date of birth and mobile phone number of every single person who arrived for testing.

I hadn’t written anything down in longhand since secondary school so my handwriting was appalling. And, for some reason, we had an unusually high concentration of Polish people in for Covid tests that day. Now I love Poland. I’ve visited Poland several times, including during Euro 2012 when a few thousand other bozos and I were co-recipients of UEFA’s Special Fan Award. I even speak a tiny bit of Polish. I think Polish people are the salt of the earth.

But when you’re under intense pressure, some of their surnames can read like wifi router passwords. And because of Covid safety regulations, you couldn’t just hand them the pen and tell them to write it down. It had to be dictated and the spelling had to be exactly right.

Then you took this information back to the desk, where you had to dictate it to a staff member sitting behind a plastic screen. For whatever reason, their systems kept failing. So often you would get to the end of your dictation and have to start all over again. This happened hundreds and hundreds of times that day.

Volunteer Kate McCartney checking a member of the public’s appointment details on arrival at Citywest vaccination centre. Photograph: Alan Betson
Volunteer Kate McCartney checking a member of the public’s appointment details on arrival at Citywest vaccination centre. Photograph: Alan Betson

We had so many people working that day, of different ages, genders, sexual orientation, from different professional and cultural backgrounds. There were so many stress points where the system could have fractured. Someone could have snapped. Someone could have lost their temper. Someone could have been rude to one of our colleagues. But it never happened. There was one soldier in particular – a big army lad in his 30s – who I noticed made a point of saying something supportive and encouraging to every volunteer and staff member he interacted with that day.

This wasn’t an official directive that came down. It wasn’t that he knew one of the faceless, nameless volunteers he was working with would one day write something nice about him. It was just human decency in the raw and that’s the fuel Citywest’s entire engine runs on.

That evening, when I got home, I did something I hadn’t done before, and haven’t done since. I sat down in my kitchen, thought about the enormity of everything that’s happened to our country, and our people, in the past 18 months. And I cried my eyes out.

Then I got up the next morning and went back to work.

Eoin Butler is a freelance journalist and Covid-19 volunteer