ELKTON — The COVID-19 vaccine has arrived in Cecil County.
“I didn’t even notice it,” said Kerri D’Alessandro, the first caregiver to receive the vaccine at Union Hospital on Monday. “I didn’t feel it until the next day.”
The hospital received 500 vials of the Moderna vaccine, which was granted emergency use authorization last week, with another 400 on the way. Each vial contains 10 doses, and they have capacity to administer about 160 per day, starting with their own staff of about 1500.
D’Alessandro spent the next morning administering the vaccine to her colleagues who have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis since it swept through the country in March. They were excited to get the vaccine before the end of the year after record-breaking development and testing — vaccines typically take years to prepare for widespread public use.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” she said, adding that she was excited to see her mom for the holidays. “She did not want me to get the shot, but when I told her I couldn’t see her at Christmas time, she was saying, ‘Can you please get the vaccine?’”
Cecil County has seen over 3,200 confirmed cases and at least 67 deaths since the onset of the pandemic. Over 5,400 Marylanders have died from COVID-19, and almost 258,000 have contracted the virus.
Ryan Geracimos, the Chief Medical Officer at Union, said a buzz of excitement spread quickly around the hospital after the first vials were delivered on Monday at 9:44 a.m. They had to thaw for a few hours, and 21 doses were administered Monday afternoon.
“There was a sense of relief that it had actually arrived on campus,” he said. “And we were ready to go.”
Nurse Practitioner Ann Marie Camble received the vaccine Tuesday morning. She checked in and reviewed the care instructions, including a five-page fact sheet specific to the Moderna vaccine and information about v-safe, an app to help the Center for Disease Control (CDC) monitor any side effects.
Then she proceeded to one of four vaccination stations, which can each process about five patients per hour. Joan Pirrung, Vice President of Patient Services, waited to administer Camble’s shot. Pirrung had already given out 15 that morning.
“No, I’m not nervous,” Camble said as Pirrung wiped her upper right arm, adding that it will be a relief to know she can’t transmit the virus to others. “I’m worried about my family.”
She barely reacted as the needle went into her arm, and a moment later Pirrung pulled it out and gently applied a bandaid.
“It was fine,” Camble said a moment later. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything exciting to report.”
Nurse Manager of Surgical Services Michael Price, who signed for the initial delivery and gave D’Alessandro her shot, was checking recipients in on Tuesday morning. He explained that Camble would have to wait in case immediate symptoms flare up.
“They have to be monitored 15 to 30 minutes afterwards, based on their reactions,” he said. “So while they’re waiting for 15 minutes we have them sign up for their second dose appointment.”
Price circulated an email soliciting volunteers for the vaccine, who were then scheduled according to federal priority guidelines. He hopes to give most staff their first doses within the next two weeks.
However, the hospital cannot make the vaccine mandatory since it was only approved for emergency use. Chief Operating Officer Sharon Kurfuerst said that about one in ten staff had declined the initial invitation, but explained that for some it may be a matter of timing. She said they would be placed back in the pool to receive another invitation in the coming weeks.
For Kurfuerst, getting the vaccines administered is important not just for the health and safety of the hospital staff, but for the community at large.
“The goal is that we get to a point where the majority of the community over the next six months are immunized, and we can bring this pandemic under control,” she said. “This is really the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Caregivers at Union Hospital weren’t the only people in Cecil County receiving vaccines on Tuesday — 63 veterans at Perry Point VA Medical Center’s Community Living Center received doses of the Pfizer vaccine, as well as five employees. More will continue to get the jab in the coming days.
For William Swart, Jr., the Community Living Center’s Medical Director, the vaccine affirms the hard work his staff have put in to protect their vulnerable patients amid the pandemic.
“To now have the vaccine in hand and to be able to start giving it to employees and patients is an exciting time for us,” he said in a prepared statement. “It is evidence that our hard work has paid off, and that we will pull through this.”
Patients have been on lockdown since March and are not permitted to see visitors, a challenging safety precaution but necessary to keep the community safe — Swart expressed thanks that none of the patients have contracted the virus. However, it’s too soon to say when in-person visitation may resume.
“We are all looking forward to the day when our veterans can have visitors again,” he said in the statement, cautioning that we aren’t out of the woods yet. “While the vaccine gives us hope, we can’t stop doing all of the things that helped us get to this point.”
Over at Union Hospital, Sharon Kurfuerst also tried to keep things in perspective — the virus is still circulating and still threatens to overwhelm the hospital if it runs unchecked. With the holidays approaching, she emphasized the importance of continued safety precautions.
“We need people to mask, social distance and wash their hands,” she said. “The best thing people can do to help the healthcare system right now are those things to reduce the spread so that patients who are hospitalized can be cared for.”
Geracimos echoed the sentiment, saying that while the hospital is prepared to give quality care to patients, community members can play their part by taking responsibility for their own safety.
“The best thing we can do is keep patients out of the hospital in the first place,” he said.