Coombe master did not vaccinate students on standby, inquiry hears

Michael O’Connell’s argument for allocating surplus vaccines to staff families ‘untenable’

Medical students in the Coombe hospital’s labour ward were passed over for Covid-19 vaccines on the night they were given to 16 family members of staff, the investigation into the incident has been told.

Two days after two of his own children were vaccinated, the master, Prof Michael O’Connell, told a senior colleague the hospital was “not in a position” to vaccinate the students, according to the colleague.

Almost 40 students were on standby to receive vaccines, and hospital management were made aware of this an hour before vaccines were given to the 16 relatives, Prof Deirdre Murphy, head of the department of obstetrics at Trinity College Dublin, has told the review.

Hospital Report

The details are contained in a letter to Brian Kennedy SC, the lawyer carrying out a review of the episode for the board of the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital.

Prof Murphy describes arguments put forward by Prof O’Connell as “untenable” and says she is “personally embarrassed” by his behaviour.

Prof O’Connell apologised in January when The Irish Times revealed the hospital gave vaccines to the family members of staff. He said he had made “every effort to prioritise and identify additional frontline workers” for the vaccines on the evening of the incident, January 8th.

Working overnight

In her letter, Prof Murphy said the hospital’s senior executive team knew the medical students were on standby to receive vaccines. The Health Service Executive had advised that the students be vaccinated alongside other health staff during their hospital placements.

At the time, the 39 students were on placement in obstetrics, with some working overnight on the labour ward.

TCD requested that the hospital vaccinate the students and was asked to supply information. New PPS numbers had to be obtained for the international students, many of them from high-risk black and Asian ethnic groups, according to Prof Murphy.

She said the students were advised to remain on standby for vaccination, “in the hope there would be surplus vaccine after all frontline healthcare staff had been vaccinated”.

On January 8th, Prof Murphy saw young people queuing in the hospital for vaccination and assumed they were the medical students. At 8.32pm, she sent an email to the Coombe executive team thanking them for including the students.

On Sunday, January 10th, Prof O’Connell replied: “Just to clarify currently we are not in a position to vaccinate the students but will be happy to facilitate their vaccination should vaccine be available.”

The family members children were vaccinated that evening at 9.30pm when there were no further appropriate people available, the hospital told media last month. The students were later vaccinated at other Dublin hospitals.

Profession ‘discredited’

“A great deal of effort went into preparing the documentation for medical students to be vaccinated and Dr O’Connell chose to vaccinate his children instead,” Prof Murphy said.

She said the vaccination of low-risk family members “discredits the profession”. Her daughter has been working for her as a receptionist during the pandemic, she said.

“Under no circumstances would I have brought my daughter across to be vaccinated as she is at very low risk from Covid-19.”

Prof Murphy said she was concerned “there may be an attempt to withhold information from the review process or to be less than transparent about the facts”.

She was also writing the letter because the reputation of the hospital had been damaged and she was a senior member of the clinical/academic staff.

“The trust and respect we have earned as consultants within the hospital has been eroded at a time where staff are under huge pressure to care for patients and joint working is essential.

The master’s explanations of how the surplus doses came to be available were “not tenable”, she added.

‘Operational efficiencies’

Last month, Prof O’Connell said six and sometimes seven doses of vaccine were obtained from each vial, rather than five as expected, due to “operational efficiencies”. The availability of surplus supply only became apparent on the Friday night, January 8th, and the decision to use the last remaining doses after that day of vaccination was made to avoid vaccine having to be discarded.

But Prof Murphy said the information that at least six doses could be obtained per vial was known by the HSE and from experience in Israel.

Given vaccination also took place at the Coombe on the two preceding days, “the argument that this situation arose for the first time on the Friday evening [ January 8th] is untenable”.

Any surplus vaccine could have been provided to other health services with insufficient or no vaccine, she suggested.

Contacted by The Irish Times, Prof Murphy said the issue was of public importance. “I have received legal warnings about confidentiality in relation to this matter, and in particular about engaging with the media . . . and am therefore unable to assist you at this time.”

A spokeswoman for the Coombe said that it would not be commenting while Mr Kennedy was carrying out his review.

The hospital expects him to complete his work within a number of weeks.

It is understood Mr Kennedy has already interviewed a number of people at the hospital as part of his review.