The Yvelines 'vaccinodrome', the yellow jersey in France's Covid-19 inoculation race

·5-min read

In France, more than 30 high-volume Covid-19 vaccination centres – dubbed, sometimes derisively, "vaccinodromes" – are set to open, promising a boost to the country's initially sluggish inoculation rollout. FRANCE 24 paid a visit to one such centre inside the bicycle track at the velodrome in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris.

"C'mon! Again, again, again! C'MON!" one man on a motorcycle calls out to the French national team's sprinting cyclists as they spin around the banked velodrome track. His outbursts could just as well be directed at the healthcare workers administering injections below in the oval-shaped pit that the piste surrounds.

Welcome to the Yvelines department's giant vaccination centre, in this suburb southwest of the French capital. The vaccinodrome, as this sort of facility has become known in France, prefigures similar structures the government is set to deploy in the fight against Covid-19, meant to help meet the country's objective of 10 million first doses injected by mid-April. On Wednesday, the day FRANCE 24 took in the scene, more than 1,600 people received a jab of either the Pfizer/BioTech or Moderna vaccines. The one-day figure represents more than three times the number of doses a standard centre in France manages to inject in an average week.

Among the day's vaccine recipients, most had already scheduled appointments online using Doctolib, a website that provides provides reservations for doctor's appointments. Others, like Nicole Lalau, came after receiving a phone call from a local elected official proposing a vaccination slot.

Lalau, 74, from a small town near Versailles, says, "I'm a big fan of Dr. Raoult," referring to the controversial French professor who advocated strongly for the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19. "And, to start with, I didn't really want to get myself vaccinated. But when my mayor called to offer this appointment, I accepted right away," she says. "Mainly because I'm eager to be able to go out again freely."

Raymond Vericel, a 74-year-old former stock manager, had less luck with his own mayor. "I tried several times to get an appointment on the Internet, but every slot was full. The town hall where I live just kept sending me back to Doctolib," the retiree explains. He had to keep trying again before finally managing to secure a vaccination time.

The two freshly vaccinated seniors followed the same procedure. First, an interview in a white stall with a doctor, who checked for any reason not to prescribe a shot and then delivered a certificate of eligibility for vaccination according to government-set criteria. The injection itself is generally administered by a nurse in a blue stall. Lastly, the new vaccination is registered in France's social security database and the follow-up appointment for a second dose is confirmed.

The process was organised so that the 15 doctors and 15 nurses on site on Wednesday could complete their tasks as quickly as possible. The administrative personnel that keep the vaccinodrome clicking along hail for their part from the dozen communities that make up Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

"Our objective is to give shots en masse, but also to avoid any social injustice in the selection process. That's why we work a lot with the CCASs (Social action community centres), which bring us people who aren't able to schedule their appointments themselves," explains Sandrine Hector, who handles public relations for Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

To keep their stride of 1,500 to 2,000 doses a day, the nurses constantly take turns in the pharmacy area decanting the precious vaccine fluid from its vials to syringes. Their colleagues in charge of the injections come by in quick succession to "claim their dose". It is within this beehive of activity that the pharmaceutical assistants strive to get the most out of each vial: up to seven doses from the Pfizer vials and up to 12 from the Moderna ones.

The vaccine vials are the real munitions in this healthcare war on Covid-19. They are stored away in refrigerators in a room for which Tristan Eybert, the man in charge of this centre, guards the keys preciously. "In general, we take delivery of the vaccines for the day after next. The most important thing for us would be to have provisions as regularly as possible so we can adjust the appointments and the logistics ahead of time," says Eybert, who works for the city.

Still, he believes a new upsurge to reach the goal of 5,000 injections a day seems possible. "We could start by extending opening hours and vaccinate later into the evening, which would be conceivable with younger populations," he says. The numbers of healthcare personnel and doses would also have to follow suit – two areas in which the stars are beginning to align.

The human reinforcements should arrive because the government has announced it is mobilising firefighters and armed forces personnel for the task alongside vast categories of healthcare workers already authorised to carry out vaccinations. As for the "munitions", France is due to receive two million doses of the Pfizer/BioTech vaccine every week throughout the month of April.

That's a blessing for the vaccinodrome's personnel, who regularly confront mistrust for the AstraZeneca vaccine. "When we tell people we're going to vaccinate them with Pfizer, we see their faces light up," says Hector, the city PR person. "It's practically as if we brought out a super Chablis instead of a classic white wine!"

This article has been translated from the original, in French.