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Health & Science

'They Save Lives' — West Virginia Healthcare Workers Line Up To Get First Vaccine Doses

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Dave Mistich
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Dr. Alfred Gest (pictured right) gets a dose of the coronavirus vaccine from Hayden Carmody at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.

Many people across West Virginia and the nation are breathing a sigh of relief as a coronavirus vaccine is being distributed and administered — at medical facilities and to frontline workers.

State leaders say the arrival of vaccines won’t make the pandemic disappear immediately — and for residents to continue wearing a mask, social distance and remain cautious.

“I tell you over and over to wear your mask and do all the things,” Gov. Jim Justice said Monday. “If you just stay really tough for just a little bit longer and everything, I think we've got something on the way right here that's going to really stop this thing in its tracks.”

But the vaccine’s arrival is certainly welcome after a long, exhausting nine months that’s seen the virus kill more than a thousand West Virginians and more than 300,000 Americans.

Last week, about 2,000 nurses, doctors and other employees of WVU Medicine got a call asking whether they would be interested in taking the vaccine.

The call went out to staff directly treating patients diagnosed with the coronavirus and other frontline workers who are most exposed — including those working in designated COVID units, intensive care and the emergency department.

Over the weekend, federal regulators with the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s vaccine for emergency use, a final step needed for it to start shipping around the country and for inoculations to begin.

By Monday afternoon, healthcare workers in West Virginia were getting the vaccine, including Dr. Kishore Challa, a cardiologist at Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston.

“I'm privileged to be the first person in the state of West Virginia to get the vaccine,” Challa said. “I always I tell people, ‘Don't be afraid of the vaccine, be afraid of the virus.’”

Challa joined a live stream event Monday, in which the governor and other state officials leading West Virginia’s response to the pandemic received the first of a two-dose shot of the vaccine on camera.

Justice remarked on the toll the virus has taken on the state.

“The last 10 months have been tough on a lot of people, especially those that we've lost — and all their loved ones,” Justice said.

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Dave Mistich
Dr. Alfred Gest (pictured left) waits with medical assistant Hayden Carmody before Gest gets a dose of the coronavirus vaccine at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.

Healthcare Workers At Ruby Memorial Rush To Get An Early Dose

The rollout of the vaccine in West Virginia — at least Phase 1A, which accounts for critical healthcare workers — appears to be moving as quickly as possible.

By Tuesday morning, health care workers at WVU Medicine’s Ruby Memorial Hospital trickled into a conference room that’s become a makeshift vaccination center.

Dr. Alfred Gest, a physician from Ruby Memorial’s neonatal intensive care unit, wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the first person at the hospital to get the shot.

Other employees who showed up moments earlier had some trouble getting into the CDC’s Vaccine Administration Management System — known as VAMS — and Gest became the first to take a seat and roll up his sleeve.

At that point, all eyes in the room turned to Gest and Hayden Carmody, a medical assistant from the neurology department who was readying to administer what would become the first dose given at Ruby Memorial.

“Ready?” Carmody asked Gest, before acknowledging the small crowd that stepped closer to watch the moment.

“Okay,” she said. “That’s it.”

“That’s it?” Gest asked.

An applause took over the room.

Gest said he has been ready for some time to get inoculated from the coronavirus.

“I know there's a lot of fear of this — a lot of people are afraid of vaccines. But vaccines work — they save lives. It's the thing to do,” he said.

As a physician working with children, Gest said vaccines have a long and proven history in his field.

“I think that's one of the things about pediatrics. I think all of us are used to the vaccine culture,” he said. “So we're used to childhood immunization — we're used to taking vaccines. We get flu shots every year.”

Carmody — who said she will get the vaccine as soon as her turn comes — was fully aware of the historic nature of her task.

“I was very nervous,” she said. “I wasn't expecting to be the first one — but, it felt good.”

Vials of Pfizer's coronavirus dose sit on a table at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.

Boosting Confidence: Turning ‘Maybe’ Into ‘Yes’

Of the more than 32,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine sent to West Virginia in an initial allocation, 1,100 went to employees of Ruby Memorial. Officials at the hospital told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that appointments for the first run of doses were booked up within 48 hours of becoming available.

Greg Kolar, a registered nurse who works in the medical intensive care unit, was another employee at Ruby to get the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday. He sees the severity of the pandemic first hand every day that he comes to work.

“We're a COVID unit now — MICU — so all of our patients are COVID positive,” Kolar said. “The past several months, it's been much more hectic. The first wave, it wasn't as bad. But this time around, it's much worse.”

Kolar said he hopes the acceptance of the vaccine becomes widespread. With public sentiment seemingly split on wearing masks, he says he hopes the vaccine is the key to turning the pandemic around.

“It's kind of a relief in a way, seeing that and seeing all this unfold how it is,” Kolar said. “It's kind of hard to explain. But it’s just nice to see the positivity with the vaccine.”

While the first doses of the vaccine going out at Ruby Memorial on Tuesday were cause for celebration and hope for an end to the pandemic, hospital officials say not everyone is on board from the start.

“We've been doing a lot of polling of staff and what we're seeing is about 55 percent of staff are, you know, 100 percent ‘Yep, I'm in — I'll take the vaccine,’” said Todd Karpinski, who serves as chief pharmacy officer at WVUM Medicine.

He said another 25 percent of employees have said they refuse to get the vaccine.

“The remainder are those ones that are really in the middle,” Karpinski said. “They’re a ‘maybe’ — and it's really our job to try to get those ‘maybes’ to move over to ‘yeses.’”

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Dave Mistich
Greg Kolar (pictured seated), a registered nurse at Ruby Memorial Hospital, waits to receive a dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.

Phase 1-A: Just The Beginning For The Rollout Plan

State officials running the vaccine rollout say Ruby Memorial is housing one of five vaccine storage hubs around the state.

Karpinski said WVU Medicine will disperse doses to its own employees, but will also unload stock to other hospitals and healthcare systems in the surrounding area to get their essential staff vaccinated as part of Phase 1A. Stock will be redistributed to more than 20 hospitals in the region, he said.

“The biggest reason for that is, not everyone could afford to buy these ultra-low freezers which store vaccines at about negative 70 Fahrenheit,” Karpinski said.

Inoculations of critical healthcare workers at Ruby are expected to be completed in three weeks, before moving on to other staff. Karpiniski said other vaccinations of other, non-critical staff, could be completed in the next eight to 10 weeks.

State officials say they expect the vaccine to be made available to the general public by late February or March. Karpinski said, as that point draws near, people around Morgantown may be able to actually see some logistical changes taking place.

“[We’ve] talked about using our COVID testing tent now that we have — like at the [University Town Center] — and make that into a COVID vaccination tent to really get the vaccine out to the masses once we have adequate stocks,” Karpinski said. “So we'll certainly do whatever we can do — and work with the state to help push that effort forward.”

Karpinski and others at WVU Medicine acknowledge the massive undertaking in front of them. While they’re used to vaccinating employees for things like the flu, never before has a vaccine been developed so quickly and its rollout seemed so dire.

“We're building the airplane as we're flying here. But health care workers are pretty good at responding to these types of situations and making things work,” he said. “And if we have to pivot — because something's not going the right way — we certainly can do that in a pretty quick fashion.”

Karpinski said his biggest task is getting the word out on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

He said he hopes the fact that those on the front lines are getting it first will help boost confidence before a rollout to the general public is made available.


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