Stepping out onto her own driveway, Sheila Samtani found herself feeling disorientated. The once-familiar streets around her Cordeaux Heights looked different. After more than six weeks shut up inside, 68-year-old Mrs Samtani, a grandmother made medically vulnerable to coronavirus by chronic asthma, left her home for the first time on Monday morning to become one of the first people to get a Pfizer jab at Wollongong's just-opened mass vaccination hub.
"I haven't stepped out of the house since the day we [began] the lockdown (June 25)," Mrs Samtani told waiting media, after receiving her first dose of the vaccine.
"I was looking forward to taking the shot. That was the most excitement I've had.
"I'm just waiting for the second one until I step out anywhere again. I'm going back home and locking myself in, until the 30th."
Spirits ran high in and around the Crown St mall hub on Monday, with numerous departing patients reporting their experience was "very efficient", the facility clean and spacious, the many staff friendly and accommodating.
"There's a lot of people in there whose jobs dried up with COVID, so they're thrilled to have work," said Annette Thornton, a physiotherapist from Figtree who wanted to get fully vaccinated for the sake of her elderly patients.
But local health authorities concede the new facility has not been accompanied by any increase to the region's supply of vaccine, and those looking for an appointment at the hub face a two-month wait until more of the drug will become available.
The Illawarra Shoalhaven Mass Vaccination Centre operates out of the former David Jones building, taking in patients whose appointments were previously scheduled to take place at Wollongong or Shellharbour hospitals.Together, those hospitals were administering 700 vaccinations daily.
While the new Wollongong centre has been touted as having an increased capacity of 2500 vaccinations daily, Caroline Langston, Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District's executive director integrated care confirmed the site would provide a maximum 700 jabs daily, for now, due to restricted supply.
"As supply increases we will open up more times and more appointments," she said. "Currently the wait time is two months, but as soon as we get more vaccine we'll open that up, we'll operate seven days a week until 8pm at night once we have the vaccine."
The centre operates by appointment only and does not accept walk-ins
Staff keep a waiting list and by the afternoon call up names from this to make use of any vaccine likely to be leftover at day's end.
The centre is staffed by 200 nurses, pharmacists, medical, administrative support and concierge staff , some of them diverted from area hospitals.
Patients arrive via a Globe Lane entryway, stepping into an airport-like arrivals area with crowd control-style belts leading to a check-in area.
A queue of about 10 people briefly forms on Globe Lane as the Mercury visits about 10am Monday, but those waiting move quickly inside.
The old department store's elevators are still operating, carrying masked patients over the underground and ground floors, and staff up to the top level. A masked attendant trains a steady stream of clear pink liquid sanitiser over the moving rail as the Mercury looks on.
Before they leave, patients spend about 15 minutes in an observation area, a spot once reserved for David Jones' furniture and manchester department.
The centre currently administers only the Pfizer vaccine.
Contrary to earlier announcements, the health district is now considering making the Astra Zeneca vaccine available from the Wollongong centre.
Ms Langston said it was undecided whether a previously flagged Shellharbour Astra Zeneca vaccination centre would therefore still go ahead.
"As soon as we get more vaccine we'll be able to provide more time and we're also considering AZ from here so that will provide another opportunity."
Meantime, the health district's chief executive Margot Mains confirmed seven COVID patients had recently been transferred to Wollongong Hospital from overstretched Sydney hospitals.
"The people that are coming to us are from south-western Sydney," she said. "We operate as a group of networked hospitals where we support each other. We transfer people out and we have offered our support to them to transfer people out because they were under considerable pressure."
Ms Mains said the health district was working to increase the capacity of its COVID ward from 10 to 14. None of the region's allocation of Pfizer vaccine had been diverted to areas considered to have greater need, she said.
"We did not lose any vaccination," she said.
Responding to news of incoming patients from south-western Sydney, Wollongong MP Paul Scully called on the community to open its arms to the out-of-area patients, expressing confidence the arrangements would not place local patients at any disadvantage.
"I'm confident that clinical staff have gone through all the scenarios they could. These are people who have been ... getting prepared for this for months. They are ready to go whether it was us having a mass outbreak down here and we needed to rely on our friends and colleagues in Sydney or the reverse as we're seeing, so I am completely confident that there will be no loss and no diminution of the treatment for anyone who needs it, as a result of this change."
NSW recorded 283 new locally acquired cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to 8pm on Sunday - none from the Illawarra Shoalhaven.
Keira MP Ryan Park praised area health authorities and tradespeople for getting the hub operational, but blamed government for the fact the site was operating at less than a third of its capacity.
"I think every Australian is disappointed with the vaccination rollout; it's been bungled. The fact we've got capacity here to do more and that we can't do that is a frustration for frontline clinicians, it's a frustration for health workers, it's a frustration for small business owners who remain shut, it's a frustration for all of us."
"Of course we want it running at full capacity. Unfortunately, [due to] the nature of the bungled rollout, we can't do that at the moment."