Pathologist Frank Kostakis and Dr Penelope Aligiannis are not policy makers, academics or even public health professionals supported by state governments, but a Greek Australian couple working in the “hot spot” of the pandemic in Sydney’s southwest.
Dr Aligiannis, a local GP in Padstow, said that she raised her hand to offer vaccinations at her clinic because she understood the necessity of this for the multicultural community which she serves.
“For them, to go to other doctors and other services, I think would be far too challenging,” she said, adding that her Greek-speaking patients would otherwise have had a hard time navigating the booking system. “I think it has certainly been a benefit for our patients.”
While Dr Aligiannis is giving patients the jab, her husband is visiting people in their homes or at aged care facilities to test them for COVID-19 and offer them his services
“It’s an extreme honour, but of course it comes with challenges,” Dr Aligiannis told Neos Kosmos in reference to their work in the maelstrom of the pandemic.
“I work with one other doctor and we alternate our roles, purely for safety. One will be doing clinical work, while the other does vaccinations, just in case we have a patient who tests positive. We want to make sure there’s always a doctor available to run the practice.
“And you still have your patients who need you; the clinical responsibility is still there.”
Dr Aligiannis averages about 150 jabs a day. “It may not sound like much when you’re hearing hubs doing 15,000 a day, but it’s a lot for one doctor and a nurse to take on when you factor in the cleaning between every patient, factor in the consent process, factor in the identification process, the actual vaccination and the documentation afterwards – so it is quite a lengthy process, but we’re doing it efficiently,” she said.
“We do provide an opportunity for patients to ask questions and, especially for those who don’t speak English, it has been amazing to just speak with me and get the answers they are after because it is confusing for them with so much information out there. I don’t blame them for either being a little bit hesitant or a bit afraid, but once they realise there are people like me to have a chat to, with no judgment, so they feel quite comfortable and realise the value of doing this,” she said, adding that she’s “not here to advocate the vaccine” and states that there are a lot of misconceptions regarding the risks.
“We’ve got to put things in perspective. We’ve got to look at the alternative and the alternative is catching coronavirus and in Sydney it is a real threat, and the vaccine is a tool, in addition to practicing hand hygiene, wearing masks, distancing and staying home when we’re sick.”
She hasn’t seen many COVID deniers or so-called anti-vaxxers, though her husband has encountered a great deal of “skepticism” on account of what people read on social media, “dangerous messages” which quickly spread, he said.
“I’m not going not going to be naïve and ignorant and say that (skepticism) doesn’t exist,” Dr Aligiannis said.
“It has existed forever for as long as vaccinations have existed. This is nothing new to the science community. Let’s go back to the accusations that vaccinations for measles, mumps, rubella causes autism. These accusations have been going on forever. The important thing is to not be condescending, and to empathise with people, saying ‘look we understand where the hesitancy comes from and the fear’, and I think it is important that people are given the facts,” she said.
As a doctor and a local girl who went to St Euphemia’s Bankstown, she knows the community well and has spent years building relationships of trust.
Protecting the family
“I’ve got photos of my children at the practice, and hey see the fact that I’m doing this and putting my family’s safety at risk, don’t forget there’s nothing available for children under 12, so if I was to catch this virus, and you’ve got to remember that vaccinated people still have a chance of catching the virus, and essentially, I can take it home to my children who have no protection.”
The couple says these are “nerve-wracking” times.
“The first thing I do when I get home is shower,” Dr Aligiannis said. “I do not hug my children. I shower first and then I do my washing because those clothes have to be washed. My day has been extended and it is no longer about coming home to give my kids a cuddle. First, I take all my clothes off, put them in a bag, change into other clothes, come home and shower.”
Her husband said that their day is a constant rush.
“You get up in the morning and it’s rush, rush, rush,” he said.
“I’m out the door before anyone has even woken up. Trying to organise the kids for daycare, rush to get to work. We come back home and I’ve got to jump in the shower before seeing the kids. It hasn’t put a strain in our marriage, but it has definitely been time consuming. It’s been a lot of work, the last couple of months especially,” he said.
The couple’s three and a half-year-old daughter and twin boys, aged two and a half, “have gotten used to it”.
“At first they didn’t but now they know that when I go home, mummy must rush to the bathroom before coming into contact with them,” she said.
“They probably don’t know any better at this stage. Their daycare is teaching them a lot about what is going on and it’s a good thing that they are at daycare. Thanks to these childcare workers who are also risking their lives, and my sister is one of them. They are working and doing their duty and thankfully teaching these children hand hygiene and about the infection out there, that is a little bit scary,” she said.
Dr Aligiannis thinks it is important to be mindful of the team effort. All the workers, not just doctors. “It’s not just myself, it is also my reception staff. They are part of this process. Answering concerns sending messages to doctors to the nurse. My husband, a pathologist, running around doing blood tests in people’s homes, and so many others,” she said.
“We are all in this together.”