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Thursday 16 December 2021 9:37am

vince and grace
Otago alumni Vince Costa and Grace Davies work side-by-side at the Capital and Coast District Health Board in Wellington.

Over the past year, new words and phrases have crept into our everyday language: the national booking system, the COVID-19 immunisation register, vaccine certificates and vaccination programme coordinators, to name a few.

Behind all these new terms are people – working to turn the words into actions, to create all the new systems we now live with, and to build the vital relationships needed for our response to the pandemic.

Two of those working on the COVID-19 response for the Capital and Coast District Health Board (CCDHB) in Wellington are young Otago alumni. Grace Davies (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Raukawa) and Vince Costa put a face to the behind-the-scenes workers who are carrying out the new directives and response efforts that we hear about almost daily at the PM's 1pm briefings.

Sitting right next to each other in their central Wellington office, Grace has recently taken on the role of Youth Lead for the COVID-19 response for the DHB, while Vince is Regional Adviser for the COVID-19 national booking system and immunisation register (and does a bit of vaccinating on the side).

At the start of 2021, neither would have guessed this was how their year was going to turn out.

Grace Davies – realising her dreams

Since finishing her Bachelor of Health Sciences last year, majoring in Māori Health, Grace has been busy. At the beginning of 2021, she started a job at her own iwi health provider, Ora Toa (Primary) Health Services in Porirua, doing policy review work with local GP practices. During the year, she also completed her Postgraduate Diploma in Health Sciences.

“It's been a struggle but my boss at Ora Toa was really supportive. And the uni has been great, being flexible and helping me to get my postgraduate diploma done in a year fulltime, rather than stretching it out.”

Grace has also just been awarded a Health Research Council scholarship to undertake her master's degree, focussing on Māori attitudes towards vaccination, particularly the COVID-19 vaccination and childhood immunisations. She will base her research around her own iwi community in Porirua.

“I'm really passionate about getting them really involved in the health sector and making the health sector a safe place for them: a place that they would want to go and a place that they can regain trust in. I think by doing research with them and getting their answers, it is me being an advocate for what they want to see in the system, as well as just giving them a voice.”

“My dream has always been to work for a government agency like a DHB or the Ministry, create those relationships and when that's all done and I've learnt all I can from working with those agencies, to then bring all this information and knowledge back to my Ora Toa roots and give back to my health provider.”

When she started at Otago, a career in public health wasn't on Grace's radar. Right from when she was little, she wanted to be a doctor and went to university with that intention. However, she became sick during her first year, which impacted her studies.

“But I took a Public Health first-year paper and I really fell in love with it. I enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoyed Hubs (Human Body Systems) or Cells or Chem, and all the other Health Science First Year papers.”

With support and guidance from Kōhatu – Centre for Hauora Māori (Māori Health), she decided to switch to the new Bachelor of Health Sciences degree and hasn't looked back since.

“It's so important for students to realise that being a doctor, being a dentist, is not the only way to get into the health field. That's what I thought, that to make a change I had to be a doctor or I had to be a dentist. But in reality, you don't have to, there are so many other pathways that people don't realise.”

As well as discovering what she was passionate about in her studies, she says the highlights of her time at Otago included the student culture and the lifelong friends she made, and the support she received from Kōhatu.

“They were always supportive of me and making sure that I stayed on my path and got where I wanted to go.”

Another significant experience for her was attending a Māori graduation event. “I remember seeing all the Māori graduates come out on the other side - this was at the end of [my] second year and I was quite defeated, and thinking it was a bit of a long haul. Seeing them graduate and seeing Māori succeed was a huge highlight for me.”

After Otago, she began her job at Ora Toa, initially doing policy review and working with GP services. She became involved with the vaccination programme and took up the role of vaccination coordinator for Ora Toa in March. She quickly became aware of gaps and hesitancy in the community.

“I really wanted to take the services to the community and out to places where they felt comfortable. And I wanted to engage, particularly with Māori and youth, as to why they were worried or concerned about getting vaccinated,” says Grace.

“What we realised with the roll out in the region was that our over 65 numbers were great, our numbers for middle-aged were great, our numbers for Māori and Pasifika have been increasing, but our youth numbers weren't great. I think we realised something needed to change and we needed to get some youth involvement in the programme.”

One thing led to another, and her job evolved into her new role as Youth Lead for the COVID-19 response for the CCDHB. “I think it's important to get that youth voice across. I was a real advocate for that at Ora Toa and I think they must have liked it so I'm here at the DHB now!”

In her role, she's involved with initiatives such as the school vaccination programme; informal Q and A sessions for 16- to 30-year-olds; and reaching out and engaging with sports clubs, cultural clubs and youth events throughout the region.

She says her first challenge is to help youth realise they have a key role to play in the response. “I think that's huge. Youth are going to be the big spreaders of this disease, of COVID, and I think it's really important that they realise they're just as important as everyone else. It's really hard to try and change that stigma.

“I think the second challenge will be to work with the communities who don't have much trust in the health system. Regaining that trust is going to be a challenge that I want to work to overcome.”

Grace's current role goes through to July next year, and she will begin her two-year master's in January.

“For a 22-year-old I have big dreams. I want to eventually end up at the Ministry of Health working in either the Māori health space, or I'm actually really enjoying the immunisation space, so maybe do that.

“My dream has always been to work for a government agency like a DHB or the Ministry, create those relationships and when that's all done and I've learnt all I can from working with those agencies, to then bring all this information and knowledge back to my Ora Toa roots and give back to my health provider.”

Whether it's the Māori health space, youth or immunisation, Grace is determined to make change throughout the country.

Her message to all students is to find whatever it is they are passionate about and, when the going gets tough, look forward to where they want to be in the future.

“I was struggling once in my uni degree. We all do. The advice I would give to students would be if you're passionate about something make it known, make your voice known, stand up for what you believe in. And people will notice that in the sector that you wish to go into and they will hire you. From what I've noticed, passionate people are the people that they're wanting, especially in the health sector.”

Vince Costa – creating opportunity and making a difference

When Vince completed his Master of Dietetics earlier this year, he never imagined that within a few months he'd be adding Certified Vaccinator to his CV.

Having spent last year on placement in Wellington as part of his master's, he was doing administration at Wellington Hospital and working on his thesis when he was seconded to help out with the first vaccinations at the borders and ports.

Once he received his Annual Practising Certificate he undertook the training to become a Certified Vaccinator, and became a team leader for the administrators for the Wellington hospital staff vaccination programme. When that was done, he was seconded again to help out with the national booking system and the immunisation register.

“It's been a crazy path,” says Vince. “There's been a lot of job changes this year but it's been really good.”

In his current role as CCDHB Regional Adviser for the COVID-19 national booking system and immunisation register, Vince helps all the GP clinics, pharmacies and vaccination sites around Wellington to get set up on the national booking system, either by doing site visits or helping them out on Zoom.

“I walk them through the COVID immunisation register and booking system, show them how to get set up, how they set up their capacity, load their appointment times and how they use the booking system to suit them.”

“It's just so great to be involved in this, to both support the COVID response and also to be on the ground and vaccinate people. To know that you're protecting people from COVID and you're making a difference. It's really rewarding.”

He also does a little bit of vaccinating on the side. As a health professional with a practising certificate, he was able to sign up for vaccination training, which he admits was a “little bit scary at first”.

“That's completely new to me, I'd never stuck a needle in someone. It did help that I'd done those jobs in the hospital for the first vaccinations. I watched all the nurses, then I did the training. Most of the training is online. You have to do two assessed vaccinations on a person, and then you get signed off to be a vaccinator. So that was really scary [at first] but after that you get quite used to it.

“I've just signed up to be a swabber as well. I don't think I'll be getting into medicine but it has been really great.”

Originally from Wellington, Vince says dietetics was always something he wanted to do. “I was interested in nutrition since I was 16. I was really overweight. I had non-alcoholic liver disease and that's kind of what got me interested in nutrition, so that was always the plan.”

He says the Department of Human Nutrition at Otago was really supportive, especially for the master's programme, and all the lecturers were very helpful. During his degree, Vince was treasurer for both the Otago University Nutrition Association and the Otago University Dietetics Association.

In his current role with the CCDHB, he's enjoying working in the Public Health space, getting out and doing vaccinations, and generally “doing something useful” in the community as part of the COVID response.

“It's really good to talk to people and answer all their questions. We run some education sessions at the sites where people might need them, if they have questions about the vaccine. We do a lot of those for Māori and Pacific communities who just want to know a bit more about the vaccine. Sometimes even when I'm at a community clinic people will come in to ask questions and maybe they don't get the vaccine on that day but we book them in for a later date.”

He says one of the biggest challenges in the job is the need to respond quickly to lockdowns and adapt to meet the new demands of the situation.

“It's quite different to everyone else. When we go into lockdown or when we have a surge, most people will be working from home, kind of slowing things down. But when we go into a surge we have to work 10 times harder, trying to set up swabbing centres and vaccination centres overnight. Things can change 'just like that' in this job, so it's just learning how to react to those situations and manage them and stay sane.”

He says it's a close-knit team at the CCDHB. “We work really well together and just kind of have to get stuff done.”

Vince is planning to stay where he is for the moment and is keen to stay working in Public Health.

“It's just so great to be involved in this, to both support the COVID response and also to be on the ground and vaccinate people. To know that you're protecting people from COVID and you're making a difference. It's really rewarding.”

His advice to new graduates would be to take every single opportunity you get.

“At the start of this year I didn't know what I was going to be doing and I just took that admin job and that's turned into this. So I just think take every opportunity you can get and be open to all the things you can do with your degree. You learn so much from your degree and there's so many options out there.”

Kōrero by Margie Clark, Communications Adviser, Development and Alumni Relations Office

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