The first person to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in Northern Ireland has said it felt like a “huge moment” in the battle against the pandemic.
Joanna Sloan, 28, is sister in charge of the team of vaccinators for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Northern Ireland’s largest.
She received the jab at the Royal Victoria Hospital in West Belfast shortly after 8am on Tuesday morning, and said it felt like she had cleared the final hurdle.
The nurse, from Dundrum in Co Down, said: “I feel privileged and honoured and a little bit emotional that we have got here – very, very grateful.”
She felt “apprehensive and nervous” beforehand.
As the vaccine was administered, she said she was thinking: “At last – we are here.”
Ms Sloan added: “Through everything that healthcare workers (went through), either in hospital or (the) community – people themselves losing family members, us losing colleagues – it felt like it was a huge moment and that this was and could possibly be the final hurdle in the fight against Covid.”
She is a former emergency department nurse and has been in her job for six years.
The nurse is engaged, but her wedding was postponed due to the pandemic.
Ms Sloan has a daughter aged five.
Afterwards, she said of the jab: “It did not feel any different than any other immunisation that I have had, I did not feel any pain.”
She said it had been stressful and hard work preparing for the moment.
“We worked tirelessly to make sure that people are safe.”
Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, said it was a remarkable day.
“We can begin to look to the future with a degree of optimism, with this vaccine and other vaccines and more effective treatments,” he said.
“Hopefully in the future Covid-19 will become a more manageable disease and we will begin the pathway to a more normal life.”
Dr McBride added that he did not think this day would come so soon, 10 months after Covid-19 was discovered, as opposed to the more normal 10 years taken to develop vaccines.
He recalled the sacrifices and harm caused by the virus as well as the number of lives lost, and warned there will be more challenging months ahead.
The Royal Victoria Hospital’s centre for delivering the vaccine is a former storage facility which was converted into a clinical environment within a week.
Staff worked “around the clock” to prepare, Ms Sloan added.
She said her daughter, Cailie, was at school and hoped she would be proud to learn that her mother was the first to receive the jab in Northern Ireland.
They live in the seaside town of Dundrum with Ms Sloan’s fiance Chris.
Their wedding was postponed from September and is scheduled for next April.
Ms Sloan said she hopes there is light at the end of the tunnel for them personally too.
“We may get to have our big day after 10 years of waiting.”
The vaccine will be delivered at seven sites across Northern Ireland, including the Ulster Hospital’s new Emergency Department near Belfast, the Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena in Co Antrim, Antrim Forum leisure centre, and the Foyle Arena in Londonderry.
Those who will deliver it to the wider population are the first to receive it.
Residents in care homes and their staff are due to be inoculated before Christmas.
Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “This will make such a difference to that generation, those people with clinical vulnerabilities who have been living in fear of this virus.
“This vaccine gives hope, this vaccine gives the opportunity of a return to normal sooner than we would ever have thought.”
The first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab arrived in Northern Ireland last week after it was approved by UK regulators.
It has an efficacy rate of as high as 95%.
Stormont deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said it was a “big day”.
“Joanna is certainly leading the way.
“It shows that there is some confidence and optimism about next year and what that will bring, the return to some normality for all of us.
“I am delighted that today is the first step forward and it will be received very positively by the public.”
Meanwhile, a 90-year-old grandmother, originally from Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh, became the first person in the world to have the Pfizer jab outside trial conditions.
Margaret Keenan has lived in Coventry in the West Midlands for more than 60 years.
She said: “Hopefully it’ll help other people come along and do what I did, and try and do the best to get rid of this terrible thing.”
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