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At the coalface: After a year working under Level 4 conditions, border workers describe relief at arrival of Covid-19 vaccine

It’s been a marathon year for border workers, who are now finally getting access to a vaccine which will help return their lives to some kind of normal.

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It’s been a marathon year for border workers, who are now finally getting access to a vaccine which will help return their lives to some kind of normal. Source: Sunday

Amid the sacrifices, stigma and stamina associated with their role, the light at the end of the tunnel is emerging.

About 27,000 of managed isolation and quarantine workers have now received their first dose of the vaccine, with the second dose now rolling out.

The SUNDAY programme spoke to two frontline workers who’ve worked under Alert Level 4 conditions for the past year and are now looking forward to having more protection in their roles after both receiving the vaccine.

Milton Berking and Annemarie Gallagher both work in managed isolation facilities, Berking in managed isolation facility (MIF) security in Auckland and Gallagher a nurse at a hotel in Rotorua.

Berking says it’s been a “long 12 months,” describing the year of Covid-19 as a “rollercoaster”.

“It was a lot of anxiety. I think because you're conscious that, you know, everybody's asking you questions about what you are doing. Or how do you feel about it and your opinion on things,” he says.

“It's been a rollercoaster of sorts, I guess with the different level lockdowns, especially Auckland has been in.”

Berking has a background in aviation security and in March last year, volunteered to work in security at a facility in Auckland.

He describes living in Level 4 conditions at work and Level 3 at home as “second nature” now: no handshakes or hugs.

“So I practice this social distancing, If I go out, you know, I do the using the app on the QR codes, I sanitise at the supermarket, I wear a mask. So I just stay in that mode, sort of Level 3 all the time. And I know it's Level 4 within the hotel where I work," Berking says.

“It was challenging trying to think about exposure to Covid. If I get infected, I'm not a young person anymore. I didn't want to get sick... seriously.”

This is because Berking has compromised immunity. His wife, Julia, had some worry for her husband’s health.

“I knew he was in a high-risk category that if he did get the virus the prognosis would not be good. He has had cancer in the past so he's only got one kidney. So he is a little bit more vulnerable in terms of his health, but I did trust him. I trusted him to navigate that risk.”

Berking and his family are relieved the vaccine has finally arrived.

“I see us sort of in a tunnel, you know, New Zealand from the beginning. And what we've done to get here now, and this is just another step again, in the fight against Covid.”

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He says his “stress levels” are coming down a bit since having the vaccine, hoping that after a year of sacrifice, life will become easier.

“There were some serious moments when it suddenly finally clicked  - I'll be at the coalface where the, you know, possibility of the infected people coming into the country. So yeah, it was it was full of anxiety, stressful at times,” he says.

“I'm aware that since my jab, apparently my immune system is now rising up to maybe 50 per cent. I looked at the numbers on a data sheet, and supposedly seven days after the second jab. So there is a reassurance.

“I'm not OK with getting Covid, so, yeah, it's a simple choice for you in the end."

In Rotorua, Annemarie Gallagher is part of the nursing team in the city’s managed isolation facility.

She’s spent the past year in a state of vigilance.

“We are in full PPE all the time. So that's gowns, masks, shields, gloves and it’s extremely confronting,” she says.

“Initially there was a lot of fear from people, there's a lot of stigma and doesn't make you feel good when you're treated in the community like you've got Covid.”

HERD IMMUNITY

The Director-General of Health wants New Zealand to have 90 per cent herd immunity, but knows that will take buy-in from those who are hesitant.

“There's hesitancy, hesitancy is understandable. I think as I see more people being vaccinated, as they see that it's safe, more people will be willing to come forward,” Dr Ashley Bloomfield says.

A former ICU nurse, Gallagher says it took a bit of convincing for her to decide to take the Covid-19 vaccine.

“It's quite confronting when you know that something's going to be put into your body,” Gallagher says.

“I took my time, I did my research. It was also quite good that at the time we started here in New Zealand, the statistics were starting to come out from countries like Scotland, UK, Israel, and we were saying that it's working.

“It also helps the fact that we knew that already millions and millions and millions of people had been vaccinated before us That really helped as well. By the time it came down to crunch point, I was quite happy to have it."

Gallagher calls New Zealanders a nation of “great travellers who like to get out and about”.

She says this phenomenon may also motivate Kiwis to take the vaccine.

“I think that will actually help us a lot in terms of the fact that if it does become a vaccine passport, that will help people to make up their minds about having it."

She says as New Zealanders observe how the vaccine is working around the world in other countries, then people will be much happier about having the vaccine.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says good vaccine uptake will hasten the opening up of New Zealand’s borders.

“The borders aren't going to stay closed forever, though, at some point, we will have to reopen to the rest of the world. And at that point, everyone will be safest, if the largest possible percentage of the population is vaccinated,” he says.