When Tristan Rayner received a call out of the blue from his doctor asking if he wanted a coronavirus vaccine, he couldn’t believe it.
“Everybody I talk to asks: ‘How do I get it? What do I do?’’ said Rayner, who’s from Australia and lives in Berlin.
Rayner is one of around 12.2 million people – nearly 15 percent – to receive their first dose of the vaccine in Germany since the inoculation campaign started at the end of December.
About five million people – around six percent – have been given both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine in Germany.
Vaccination levels in Germany have lagged behind several other countries, including the UK and the US. But it appears they are gradually picking up speed as vaccines supplies get delivered, and more GPs start vaccinating.
More than 656,000 shots were administered on Wednesday – a record daily amount. And that was followed on Thursday with 719,927 shots – another record.
Rayner, 35, was contacted by his GP – which received a shipment of AstraZeneca – in March.
The doctor’s practice was part of a pilot project involving dozens of clinics across Germany that were given a small number of vaccine doses.
“The doctor told me they got an email that said they’re getting a lot of vaccines, asking them to ‘please vaccinate everyone in your clinic’,” said Rayner. “A police escort arrived with the vaccine doses.”
Rayner, who has diabetes and is therefore in a priority group, was briefed on the possible risks of AstraZeneca before his jab in late March.
From talking to his doctor, Rayner picked up that several people in the practice weren’t keen on getting the AstraZeneca injection due to the risks associated with blood clots that led German authorities to recently restrict its use in the under 60s age group.
Rayner said it crossed his mind to ask for another vaccine but he felt he had to “trust that the vaccine had been approved, that science is on its side, that there is a small chance of something going wrong”.
A GP giving a vaccination to a patient in Kranichfeld, Thuringia, on April 7th. Photo: DPA
“I was reassured by my family doctor. It certainly wasn’t a case of walking in, getting the shot and walking out,” he added. “ It was sitting down and discussing the risks, what you should watch out for.”
Rayner said in the end he had “no hesitation” to get the AstraZeneca jab, and that getting it from his local doctor made the process easier.
“I think that makes a huge difference rather than the big clinics. For some people they want someone they know telling them what it’s really like. Trust really helps.”
States have differing systems
One of the most complicated parts of the vaccination rollout in Germany is that every state has a different way of doing things.
Some invite patients by letter, while others rely on residents contacting them by phone or online.
At the moment most states have completed the priority group one vaccinations and have moved onto group two, which includes people aged 70-79, people with serious pre-existing conditions, as well as primary school teachers, and two close contacts of pregnant women.
But it’s patchy and, anecdotally, it seems there are a few different ways that people are being offered the vaccine.
Terry Kidd, an engineer who lives in the village of Geisenfeld, Bavaria, is 70 and in priority group two.
He had heard from a friend aged 67 (in priority group three) who had called up a vaccination centre to ask when she was due for a jab. After a wait she was then called up and asked to come immediately.
Kidd made similar inquiries at his local vaccination centre and received a text message offering his first shot.
“The fact that I told them in advance that I was happy to take AstraZeneca may have helped, who knows?” he said.
Kidd, who is from the UK and has lived in Bavaria since 2005, said his paperwork was checked and he had to fill in an additional form with medical conditions at his vaccine appointment.
A doctor, who switched to English after detecting Kidd’s accent, reminded Kidd of some of the possible risks associated with AstraZeneca, and he had to sign a document saying he had been informed.
“He also said that I might feel a bit rough for three or four days,” said Kidd.
“A nurse injected me and then I was directed to a waiting room and told to sit down for 15 minutes,” he added. “I thanked the little team very sincerely and went on my way.”
It appears that it depends on where you live if you get to choose which vaccine you get.
A spokeswoman from the Bavarian health authority told The Local: “Currently, citizens in Bavaria cannot choose the vaccine yet. As soon as vaccine is available in sufficient quantities, the people receiving a vaccination should be able to choose. This is done nationwide.”
And a spokeswoman from the North Rhine-Westphalia health office told us: “Due to the still limited availability of vaccine, citizens are not free to choose which vaccine they are supplied with in the 53 vaccination centres.”
‘It was nice to be given the choice’
In Berlin those who receive a letter with a code to book an appointment appear to be able to choose which vaccine they get. However, it’s likely that GPs will only offer one type of vaccine.
Tamsin Paternoster, 24, works part time as a daycare worker. She received a letter with a code that allowed her to book an appointment online.
Paternoster said she was given the choice of three vaccines: AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson.
Due to AstraZeneca being restricted for those under 60, Paternoster decided on the other two which both had similar waiting times of just under two months.
She opted for the Pfizer/BioNTech option and secured an appointment around two months away on May 26th.
Paternoster, who’s from the UK, was also able to choose the venue in Berlin for the jab.
She said reading reports about AstraZeneca made her feel nervous but if it was the only option she wouldn’t rule out getting it.
“I think it’s just exciting and necessary to have the vaccine,” she said, adding: “It was nice to be given the choice.”
Jaton’ Louise West, 76, in Berlin and originally from the US, said she and her partner booked an appointment for the BioNTech/Pfizer after receiving an invitation from the Berlin Senate in the post.
“We are in our 70s, but our neighbour, who is in his 80s, has already received both his shots and was impressed with how well the process was handled in the vaccination centre.”
West said it was easy to register for an appointment on the website but she’s heard of other people struggling to sign up via the phone. An appointment for the Pfizer injection had a wait of around seven weeks.
Many foreigners in Germany are comparing their experience to what’s happening back home. For West, things seem better in Berlin than her home country.
A daycare worker at a vaccination centre in Cologne. Photo: DPA
“I think the process in Berlin is much easier than in the US,” she said, referencing how people in the US “have to scurry about finding out where they can get a shot”.
“In Berlin, we have the six vaccination centres and we just select the one that offers us the vaccine we want,” she said.
West also praised Berlin for offering free taxi rides to and from vaccination centres for older people.
“All we have to do is show the taxi driver our appointment slip,” she said.
Although there have been issues with supplies and changes regarding the management of AstraZeneca, West said: “In terms of organising the process of getting people vaccinated, I think Germany has done a marvelous job.”
‘No sense of urgency’
Michael, 71, a UK national in Baden-Württemberg said he is classed as clinically vulnerable – and felt frustrated that he could not initially secure a vaccine appointment.
He also described Germany’s handing of the vaccination process as “shameful” saying there’s “no sense of urgency”.
“I am told that our local centre is managing one patient per hour due to the bureaucracy in which the process is embedded,” he said.
However, he was happy to report to The Local in a follow up email this week that he finally got a vaccination appointment.
“I secured vaccination dates over the weekend, when the website suddenly responded, without any apparent reason,” he said.
“This is good but one asks how many others are struggling, particularly those with limited computer knowledge – for the process is not simple. We secured dates by harnessing others to ‘click’ on our behalf to leverage our efforts.”
Mike Moseley, who’s in his 60s, said he recently got his first dose with AstraZeneca in Mülheim an der Ruhr.
“My German partner came across a news article that North Rhine-Westphalia were offering vaccinations for the over 60s over the Easter weekend to use up an excess of the vaccine that they had,” said Moseley.
“The only documents they seemed to need was my passport and booking confirmation.
Most people – including some in older age groups – still have no idea when they will be offered the vaccine.
Hilary Raeburn is 74 and lives in Düsseldorf. She has been offered a jab by the NHS in the UK where she’s originally from – but can’t make the journey due to the strict entry conditions.
She feels confused about the system in Germany.
“At 74 years old I’m in (priority) group two but I’ve read of much younger people being vaccinated,” she said. “However since so few people have been vaccinated I’m not surprised not to have had the vaccine.”
“I have no idea when to expect an offer of the jab.”
Raeburn said the British approach “was not as cautious as the German approach but the UK is getting the job done”.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Carson, 68, in Hesse said he had not received a letter from his local GP or the state about a vaccination appointment.
There is hope that things will move more quickly now though, raising hopes that residents will be offered an appointment. The graphic below by the RKI shows the major increase in vaccinations this week in Germany after GPs across the country were allowed to give shots.
The light blue blocks show people who’ve had one shot and dark blue shows people who’ve had both doses or are fully vaccinated.
‘You feel a tiny bit guilty’
Those who’ve had their first dose or have been able to book an appointment in Germany feel lucky.
Tamsin Paternoster, who’s from the UK originally, said she felt “really excited” to receive the invite. “It finally means I might be able to go home,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tristan Rayner said it felt “surreal” to get a jab.
“You almost feel a tiny bit guilty,” he said. “You feel maybe you’re getting something that someone should have gotten before you. But at the same time everyone has to take their chance when it comes up. And now on the other side, I feel a lot of relief.”