As a new year begins, it’s likely that the pandemic will be with us for many more months ahead, but there is a bright spot on the local front: the arrival of Phase 1 vaccinations for health care workers and older citizens in Athens-Clarke County.
Just before Christmas, the first six health care workers were vaccinated at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital. A small group of employees and hospital administrators looked on as the first doses were given to each employee. All six employees volunteered to participate in a media event meant to highlight the vaccine’s arrival.
“The advent of the vaccine is the first thing that may really bring this to an end,” said Robert Sinyard, Piedmont Athens Regional’s chief medical officer. “It holds that kind of promise. That’s why we need to dispense it to everybody who wants it, and we need to get the education out there about the potential benefits of it, and we’re here today to kick that off.”
At first, health care workers will be prioritized, as they work in close contact with COVID-19 patients. The initial group included an emergency department physician and technician, a pulmonology PCT, two nurses and a transporter. While all vaccinations for employees are voluntary, Sinyard said there’s been great interest from employees who want to get the vaccine as soon as they can.
For Kimberly Tomlinson, the decision to get the vaccine was easy. “I’m an emergency medicine physician here, so I’ve been dealing with COVID since the beginning,” she said. “So I feel like, for those of us who have seen the disastrous effects of the virus, it’s kind of an easy choice. We can’t hide from it. We can’t avoid it. So I did this for myself and for my family and for my patients and, honestly, just to move things in a positive direction.”
Josh Culpepper, an emergency room tech, was excited about the prospects of the vaccine on ending the pandemic. “I wanted to run at the opportunity, honestly,” he said. “I’m happy to be vaccinated, and I’m a pro-vaccine person. I’ve never feared vaccines, but I definitely still fear COVID. I just want as many tools in my kit to fight it that I can have, because we need them.”
For those curious about getting the vaccine, Culpepper said it was painless. “I’m feeling great. I’m feeling just as good now as I did when I walked in the door,” he said. “As far as vaccine injections that I’ve had, that was a pretty painless one.”
While the first health care workers received the Pfizer vaccine, there are also orders for the Moderna vaccine. Both require two doses, with the second dose for the Pfizer vaccine at 21 days and the second dose for the Moderna vaccine at 28 days. To date, there are more than 2,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine allocated to Athens hospitals, the Clarke County Health Department, the UGA University Health Center and other health care facilities. For the Pfizer vaccine, approximately 7,000 doses have been allocated. These numbers will change and increase over time as more doses become available in the second and third phases of the vaccine-distribution plan.
Sinyard said that health care providers will be distributing vaccinations as quickly as they can when they arrive. For instance, if they received 100 doses, they would distribute 100 doses. The second dose weeks later would likely come from a different shipment of doses. As of Dec. 30, there had been 61,870 vaccinations given in Georgia, according to the Department of Public Health vaccination dashboard.
The arrival of the vaccine, by all accounts, is needed for a boost of morale and energy as health care workers continue to fight the pandemic. Since Thanksgiving, Athens hospitals have seen a large increase in hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients, with 42% of all hospitalizations, or 287 patients, at hospitals in Region E attributed to COVID-19. Bed space is also becoming limited, with 96% of intensive care beds and 93% of all beds occupied in Region E, which includes Clarke and 11 other counties. The vast majority of those beds are at Piedmont Athens Regional and St. Mary’s.
As of Jan. 5, there had been 8,908 confirmed cases, another 1,638 positive antigen tests representing likely cases, 64 deaths and 326 hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Clarke County. The seven-day running average for new cases in Clarke County was 82 per day, up from 50 on Christmas Eve. In addition, the positivity rates of counties surrounding Clarke continue to rise and contribute to growing hospitalization rates in Athens.
So what’s next in the weeks and months ahead? Likely more social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing, say most public health experts. However, as vaccine distribution is rolled out and becomes available to long-term care residents, older adults, other vulnerable populations and essential workers, vaccinations will be available to the general public. The Northeast Health District is already accepting appointments at publichealthathens.com.
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