Dozens of frontline medical workers stood in line down a Sky Ridge Medical Center corridor Dec. 16, waiting to receive their first injections of the COVID-19 vaccine. Sky Ridge received 195 vials of …
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Phase One (winter)
1A: Highest-risk health care workers and individuals — People who have direct contact with COVID-19 patients for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period; long-term care facility staff and residents.
1B: Moderate-risk health care workers and responders — Health care workers with less direct contact with COVID-19 patients; workers in home health/hospice and dental settings.; emergency medical services, firefighters, police, correctional workers, dispatchers, funeral services, other first responders and COVID-19 response personnel.
Phase Two (spring)
Higher-risk individuals and essential workers: People age 65 or older; people of any age with obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease, significant heart disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer or are immunocompromised; people who interact directly with the public at work, such as grocery store workers and school staff; people who work in high-density settings like farms and meat-packing plants; workers serving people who live in high-density settings; other health care workers not covered in Phase One; adults who received a placebo during a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial.
Phase Three (summer)
The general public — anyone age 18-64 without high-risk conditions.
Dozens of frontline medical workers stood in line down a Sky Ridge Medical Center corridor Dec. 16, waiting to receive their first injections of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Sky Ridge received 195 vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 15 and began inoculating hospital staff the next day. Those working closely with COVID-19 patients, such as intensive care unit nurses and respiratory therapists, were the first to receive the vaccination, two days after the state received the first doses of the vaccine.
Carol Knight, a clinical nurse coordinator, received the first shot. Knight has worked at Sky Ridge since the hospital opened in 2003 and has been a nurse for more than years.
“I'm excited,” Knight said. “I hope it works. I hope it can get us all done so we can get the general public doing it. It's time. It's time to start 2021 right.”
Frontline staff are tired, Knight said, and even more so now that the colder months have arrived and COVID-19 cases continue to surge. Douglas County experienced its worst month of the pandemic in November, according to data from the Tri-County Health Department. Hospitalizations in Douglas County reached 171 last month—twice the number the county experienced in April.
“The first go-around, we didn't know what to expect. We plugged along. We did it. We did fine. It was tiring,” Knight said. “This time, unfortunately, when it hit, it hit hard, and we're more tired because we don't know when it will end but we know what's coming…
“This is extraordinary, and not in a good way.”
'It's not a joke'
Each vial received by Sky Ridge is good for five doses, for a total of 975 doses. The vaccination process requires that recipients receive two shots of the same dose 21 days apart.
The state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution chart indicates the general public will likely be able to receive the vaccine in summer 2021.
The first group of people to receive the vaccine will be residents and staff of long-term care facilities as well as people who make direct contact with COVID-19 patients for at least 15 minutes a day.
The next group eligible to be inoculated this spring include people over 65, people with certain medical conditions, people who frequently interact with the public at work, like grocery workers and teachers, and people who work in high-density settings like farms or meat-packing plants, among others.
Sky Ridge staff receiving the first shots of the vaccine felt relieved, for the most part, and ready for the end stages of the pandemic.
Alex Morris, a respiratory therapist, received his first vaccine shot Dec. 16. Morris remains cautiously hopeful the milestone marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic, which has been an eye-opening experience unlike any other he will have again, he said.
“It's not a joke,” Morris said. “The disease is deadly for certain individuals who have comorbidities, but this is precautionary. This is going to help a lot of people. I'm excited to go outside again.”
Timing is everything
Transport and administration of the vaccine is time-sensitive, said Pharmacy Director Valerie Davis.
“It's a lot of steps we have to follow to make sure the integrity of the vaccine is not compromised so that the vaccine we're giving to people remains efficacious,” Davis said.
The 195 vials of vaccine arrived in a temperature-controlled storage container maintained between minus 60 and minus 80 degrees Celsius, or minus 76 to to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Staff followed given instructions to count and inspect the vials upon arrival and repackage them with dry ice in their original container—a 9-by-9-inch box Davis called the “pizza box”— all within five minutes of opening it.
The vaccine can last up to five days in a refrigerator, Davis said. It needs about three hours to thaw. Once at room temperature, the vaccine can last up to two hours. Once diluted with saline, the vaccine can last up to six hours.
“That's why timing in these clinics is all pretty important," Davis said. "Once we take it out and begin mixing it, we want to make sure we have patients to give it to."
Light at end of tunnel
The team of frontline workers at Sky Ridge is pulling together, Knight said, just like it did during the initial wave in March and April, despite the rise in cases. The vaccine offers a glimmer of hope.
“Being in the ICU, it's tough,” Knight said. “We have to still smile. We have to joke. We have to have some humor because if we didn't, we wouldn't get through it.”
In her 30 years of nursing, Knight still finds herself learning something new every day, especially during the pandemic.
“You think you know what you're walking into every day, but you never know,” Knight said. “There's always going to be something that's a little bit different. We've all learned to go through a pandemic, and I can't wait for the day that we've learned to come out of one.”
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