Working in a Melbourne hospital as COVID-19 emerged last year, nurse Tina Jess said it was unnerving not knowing the impact the virus was going to have.
"We were hearing about the virus but weren't sure what that meant for us," Mrs Jess said. "To see how it evolved while being at a major tertiary hospital was quite daunting."
She was working at the Royal Melbourne Hospital's influenza program early on in the pandemic.
"When we didn't know much about the virus, my husband Lukas was quite nervous about me working in Melbourne.
"I said 'someone has to do it and there are really good safety measures in place. I'm probably more protected in the hospital than in a supermarket'."
The couple and their two children returned to Warrrnambool late last year and Mrs Jess is now the associate nurse unit manager of South West Healthcare's Vaccination Centre and COVID testing clinic.
Her passions are child and adolescent health and immunisation, where she has mostly worked during her 20-year career.
She enjoys talking to older residents who recall the polio pandemic and compare the improved safety and professionalism of today's vaccine rollout.
"Historically, Warrnambool has had very high rates of childhood vaccinations so when the COVID-19 vaccine came along it's no surprise Warrnambool is one of the highest in the state," she said.
Mrs Jess goes home from work satisfied that with every vaccination, the community is a step closer to normality.
"I'm extremely proud of the community for getting vaccinated. Everyone wants to move on with their lives and get us across the line."
The personal responses are uplifting despite the seriousness of the situation. "Some people are taking selfies because they're so pleased to be vaccinated."
Mrs Jess said many people were bursting to see relatives or travel overseas and felt a sense of safety and reassurance once fully vaccinated.
"They say `I just want my life back' and it's a privilege to be part of that."
She admits keeping abreast of the daily changes to vaccination rules and maintaining a smooth flow of people through a busy centre can be challenging.
"We have to be really adaptable and fast-paced to keep up with the changes and making sure all policies and procedures are adhered to," Mrs Jess said.
"It can be difficult at times helping consumers understand changes around eligibility that the government set.
"Everyone's health is important and we want everyone to be vaccinated, but there have to be rules to ensure the rollout goes smoothly.
"I'm proud to be involved and using my skills and knowledge to help get us over the line.
"I had the privilege to be the immuniser to administer our first Pfizer dose to our region. That's one for the archives - a moment in history to look back on."
Warrnambool Emergency Department nurse unit manager Jody McGovern and associate nurse unit manager/nurse unit manager Christine Hena know they will also look back with pride at the hospital and community's response.
They said having the public's support helped them respond to cases.
"It gives us confidence that we are going to be able to cope with what comes through the doors, because if people are fully vaccinated, they can still be unwell but most likely not as acutely unwell," Ms McGovern said.
With 65.3 per cent of Warrnambool residents fully vaccinated and 94.2 per cent having received their first dose, aged 15-plus, the frontline nurses know the region is equipped to cope with outbreaks.
"It's amazing to see the community vaccination rates," Ms Hena said.
"The response is giving a positive vibe to the hospital. We know that people in the community are playing their part and it makes what we're doing more achievable. We know the community is as well prepared as the hospital."
Although tired and having to cope with additional workload and pressures due to personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements and testing those with symptoms, they say there's some upsides.
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"We're in full PPE when dealing with anyone with COVID-19 symptoms which puts an extra demand on the staff," Ms McGovern said.
"It means you have to think about your work flow and cluster your care by doing everything you need at one time in the most efficient manner."
The ED coped well with COVID-19-positive cases during the first outbreak and both nurses say the safety procedures will become the new norm.
"It was a new virus but we have been exposed to many other infectious diseases, such as influenza and gastro, so we're always working with precautions," Ms McGovern said.
"Since the beginning, everyone who comes in with symptoms related to COVID-19 are treated as if they have it.
"It's more taxing on our staff but it has made people rethink their habits. We haven't seen much influenza this year or last year, which is a positive."
Despite working on the frontline, they don't feel personally at risk. "I don't go home and worry," Ms McGovern said. "I'm fully vaccinated and we're as prepared as we can be."
"We've minimised the risk as much as possible to deal with what's ahead of us," Ms Hena added.
While praising vaccine rates, the nurses encouraged people to overcome any hesitancies.
"Our advice is do your research and speak to your GP or healthcare provider and think of the community and what part you can play in helping with this COVID-19 response," Ms McGovern said.
"We have to get to our new norm and reduce restrictions; vaccinations will help us get there."
"Research shows that with the Delta strain, if you're not vaccinated you can be quite unwell, no matter what your age," Ms Hena added.
The nurses admit that every healthcare system is feeling stretched and tested by the pandemic, but recent ED nursing staff increases had helped ease pressure.
Ms Hena said the nurses remained dedicated but they were tired.
"PPE fatigue is probably the biggest thing but the work ethic hasn't changed. They're doing a great job and it's a great team," she said.
Most people visiting the ED understand the need for additional precautions.
"We've had a few concerns with people wanting to be with their loved ones when they're unwell and that's one of the hardest parts for us as nurses," Ms Hena said.
"Obviously, we would like to be able to let them but safety has to come first."
They're honoured to be part of rapid change during the pandemic. "It's the ultimate reason for being a nurse - being able to help and care for people in our community," Ms McGovern said.
"When we get through it, we will be very proud. We can tell our grandchildren we worked through a pandemic," Ms Hena added.
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