HIGH COUNTRY — After nine long months, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight. With the approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use by the FDA, many healthcare workers across the state have already received the first doses of the vaccine in the past week, and additional at-risk groups will begin to receive their doses in the days, weeks and months ahead.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Dec. 15, Gov. Roy Cooper reported that the first doses of the Pfizer Vaccine arrived at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital at 7:20 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 14. Ten hospitals initially received the Pfizer vaccine, with the closest being Caldwell Memorial in Lenoir. Forty-two more hospitals then received word on Wednesday, Dec. 16, that they would be getting shipments of the vaccine as well, with Appalachian Regional Healthcare System set to receive 800 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week.
According to NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state health department will be receiving updates on the number of vaccines that will be shipped to the state and it will then receive those vaccines on the following Monday for distribution. The state expects to receive 175,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, which will be supplied to more rural areas due to the vaccine’s ability to remain stable at refrigerated conditions for longer periods of time.
“What we are getting right now are the first doses from the Pfizer manufacturing company. Two weeks from now, the same places will be getting the same number of doses, so that by the third week they can administer that second dose 21 days later to the same folks. If they got 1,000 vaccine doses this week, in two weeks they will get 1,000 doses of Pfizer as well to be administered the following week,” Cohen said on Dec. 15.
As one of the first hospitals in the state to receive the Pfizer vaccine, Laura Easton, president of Caldwell Memorial Hospital in Lenoir, shared the healthcare facility’s experience administering the first doses of the vaccine to its staff.
“We started this morning (Dec. 16) administering vaccines to what the state has defined as 1A eligible people. In this case it is our own employees and healthcare workers who are at-risk of being exposed to Covid in their jobs,” Easton said.
The hospital received 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and administered those vaccines to 65 of its employees on the first day of administering those vaccines. The hospital has more than 1,000 employees who work in and outside of the hospital, as well as private practices with which the hospital partners. About 780 of those employees applied and were deemed eligible to receive the initial dose.
“The vaccine has over a 95-percent efficacy, so we’re really excited about that,” Easton said. “We’re hoping that we get a very high percentage of those eligible who are employees that take advantage of the opportunity to get the vaccine, obviously to protect them in their work. I can tell you the first five people in line were physicians in high risk areas who lined up and were ready to get their vaccine this morning.”
The vaccine doses come as the state experiences a surge in its COVID-19-related hospitalizations. According to the state health department, the state saw 1,395 hospitalizations in November increase to 2,735 hospitalizations in December. The number of intensive care unit patients increased as well from 350 in November to 643 in December.
“There’s definitely a sense of joy and hope that comes from this. I think there’s almost a giddiness among people who are getting the vaccine. It has definitely been the most intense time in the hospital that I’ve ever seen, with an extremely high census of COVID-19 positive and very sick people. The joy is really counterbalanced with a very intense clinical environment in the healthcare system right now,” Easton said.
Meanwhile, ARHS has been preparing to receive its doses of the vaccine. According to a press release, until this week ARHS was not sure if it would receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations, since both vaccines have unique storage and dosing requirements, so ARHS needed to plan for both.
“We began thinking about how to operationalize it — from shipping and logistics — to how and where we would store it. We ordered an ultra-low temperature freezer. We began evaluating the roles of our workers to ensure that those on the front lines would receive it first. We planned how and where our vaccine clinics would occur. We want to make it as easy as possible for our employees to get the vaccine,” Chuck Mantooth, ARHS President and CEO, said.
ARHS has more than 1,400 employees but also works with hundreds of contractors and non-employed providers in caring for the community. To ensure that front line workers receive the vaccine quickly, ARHS stratified employees, contractors and non-employed providers into high- and low-risk categories and pre-loaded those high risk employees into the State’s COVID-19 Vaccine Management System (CVMS) database.
“The 800 doses we get this week will not be enough — so even within the high risk group, we placed priority on personnel who lay hands on patients. The risk of being exposed to the virus is greater for them, so they will receive the vaccine first,” ARHS explained.
ARHS says that employees in the high-risk category who wish to receive the vaccination in Phase 1A will receive an email from CVMS to confirm their registration and a separate communication from ARHS to register for a time slot to receive the vaccination.
Toe River Health District is also continuing to prepare to receive and begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine. As part of that effort, TRHD Director Diane Creek has posted a vaccine request form on the Avery County Health Department’s social media page. Individuals can fill out the form to see what priority group they are a part of and will receive a phone call once the vaccine is available to their group.
“This vaccine is totally free to everyone,” Creek said. “One thing we would ask is if you have insurance to please bring your insurance card, because we can bill a small administration fee to help make up the expenses we’ll have administering the vaccine. If you don’t have insurance, don’t worry about cost. No one is allowed to bill the person getting the vaccine, so don’t ever let anyone tell you that you have to pay for it.”
While COVID-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out, remember to exercise caution when around groups of people. Also be sure to wash your hands, wear a face mask and social distance at least six feet from others. To view more information on the COVID-19 vaccines, click to covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines.