Union Hospital Vice President of Patient Services Joan Pirrung administers the first dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Marie Camble, a nurse practitioner.

ELKTON — Union Hospital received 900 vials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine last week, enough doses to inoculate thousands of healthcare workers and long term care facility patients after months struggling to stay safe on the front lines of the pandemic.

“This is really the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Chief Operating Officer Sharon Kurfuerst. “It hopefully brings this pandemic to a close soon, it provides greater protection to the larger community and enables them to do their job with an added sense of assurance and safety.

For nine months now since the start of the pandemic, staff at Union Hospital have seen first hand the damage COVID-19 can cause — patients separated from their families, struggling to stay healthy as new symptoms test the limits of what doctors can treat.

The campus has been busy, Kurfuerst said, with about a third of patients at any given moment being COVID-positive. Ongoing community spread keeps the hospital beds full, she explained, meaning that the cases are not coming from one clear ‘super-spreader’ event but are rather a result of the virus making its way through the county from person to person.

They did see a spike in cases after Thanksgiving, and are braced for something similar in the coming weeks after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“Vaccine or no vaccine, it’s important to limit social gatherings, important to hand wash, important to continue to wear masks,” Kurfuerst said. “Those things don’t go away because the vaccine is here.”

For months, local health metrics stayed positive, and it seemed like Cecil County had been spared the worst effects of the pandemic. Masks became commonplace, restaurants and businesses enforced some restrictions, schools reopened under a hybrid model, with students in classrooms two days a week.

Then, the local numbers began to surge.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the county has seen at least 3,200 confirmed cases and 67 deaths. As of Tuesday, Dec. 22, the county’s positivity rate held above 10 percent, with a seven-day new case rate of about 45. Statewide, over 5,400 Marylanders have died from COVID-19, and over 269,000 people have contracted the virus.

Ryan Geracimos, Union Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, said that he and his staff have learned some key lessons in the weeks and months since the initial onset of the pandemic — they have streamlined the flow of caregiving to reduce inefficiencies, he explained.

The medical understanding of the virus, including measures to prevent transmission and options for treatment of symptoms, he explained, have made unprecedented leaps and bounds in just a few short months.

“Everyone consolidated around the masks, and now across the board we recognize that they prevent spread,” he said. “As a community as a whole, as well as as a healthcare system, we’ve all learned from that and we’re better off for it.”

Despite learning to adapt to the virus, some challenges which come about time and time again cannot be overcome as simply.

For Geracimos, the frustration of keeping patients isolated from their families has been a defining challenge of caregiving amid the pandemic. While the hospital follows state and federal recommendations for restricting visitors, it hasn’t gotten any easier.

“My mom is in a nursing home, she had COVID and she was in the hospital, so I’ve been on both sides of that spectrum,” he said. “And I can tell you, it’s definitely a challenge to navigate.”

However, he explained that visitation restrictions are in place to protect both the patients as well as their families from exposure. For Geracimos, it’s important for the hospital staff at all levels to just have frank, honest conversations with families to do what they can to help ease the difficulty of caring for a loved one with COVID.

Kurfuerst said this is another challenge facing the hospital staff — one they have met admirably, she hopes.

“They’re not only caring for the patient in the clinical sense, but they’re providing a tremendous amount of emotional support,” she said. “That’s an additional emotional lift that our nursing staff and the rest of our caregivers have to provide because they are sort of the substitute family emotional support while patients are not able to connect in-person with their own families.”

After nine long and difficult months, the arrival of the Moderna vaccine feels like an affirmation of that hard work, a sigh of relief for at-risk responders and a holiday gift for undoubtedly deserving front line workers.

Union’s vaccination facility has four stations which can each process five recipients per hour. Running morning and afternoon blocks of four hours each, the staff can administer as many as 160 doses in a day. The hospital plans to give first doses to most of its 1500 staff in the first few weeks before following up with second doses, required 26 to 32 days later to achieve immunity from the virus.

While they can’t make the vaccine mandatory because it only has emergency use authorization rather than full federal vetting and approval, Kurfuerst said only about 10 percent of staff declined to take it when the call first went out.

“That declination could just be timing,” Kurfuerst explained, adding that staff may not want to get the vaccine if they already have cold-like symptoms, or if they’re waiting on an operation, among other reasons. “They may be declining initially, but then we’re putting them back in the pool to get another invitation again in a few weeks.”

Despite cause of celebration as the local and nationwide rollout of the vaccines appears to proceed smoothly, Kurfuerst tried to keep things in perspective. The best thing community members can do to help their ongoing care giving efforts is continue to practice safety and mitigation strategies until the vaccines have time to take hold.

“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,” she said. “We need people to mask, social distance and wash their hands.”

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