JCHD and EMS staff receive first round of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

Suzette Lowe

The Jackson County Health Department observed a historic day on December 15 as the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was dispensed.

After receiving 24-hour notice that the vaccine was ready for pickup in Charleston, two people were required to make the trip for the 35 doses. WVU Medicine Jackson General Hospital received 30 doses for staff and expects to have 30 more this week.

Department administrator, Amy Haskins, said that once the container was opened and removed from the dry ice, the vials could be stored in a normal refrigerator for up to five days.

“There are five doses in each vial,” she said. “Once it is opened, our providers have six hours to administer all five doses. It’s a timing issue. We can’t waste a dose, so if a person cancels, we have to have someone on a waiting list ready to step in and get the shot. Everything is monitored and there are strict reporting guidelines which we follow to the letter.”

These first doses were designated for the health department and emergency medical service (EMS) personnel, a decision made by the governor.

Ultimately, it’s a personal choice even for these employees.

Wendy Staats, the emergency preparedness coordinator for the health department, said it’s a voluntary decision.

“We have about 70 percent of the EMS staff willing to take it,” she said.

Among those stepping up to take the shot was EMS Director Troy Bain.

“I have trust and faith that the science has done its job,” he said. “I have a responsibility to protect those I serve which is one of the main reasons I didn’t hesitate.”

Staats did not hesitate either, being the first to be vaccinated at the health department.

“I had no concerns,” she said. “I wouldn’t let anyone else go first because I wanted to show that it’s safe. To be honest, the potential to get my freedom back at some point by taking this shot made it an easy decision for me.”

The shot given initially is the first of two required for effectiveness. For the Pfizer vaccine, each participant must take a second shot in 21 days. Haskins stressed that there will not be full protection until the shot is taken.

Those who have taken the vaccine have reported only one symptom so far.

“Their arms hurt,” said Staats. “It’s a muscle injection so that’s to be expected, but it’s a very minor reaction.”

Those that are eligible for the vaccine must register and schedule an appointment. They will receive an email from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that will ask for information to determine if they’re qualified. Once that information is received and an appointment is set up, a registered nurse double-checks the data.

“It is quite a process that, at least in this stage, is very controlled and monitored,” Haskins said. “That gives us a sense of security as well.”

In addition, those who get the vaccine can register with the CDC through a program called V-safe. This will enable that agency to send a text message to check on any possible reactions or concerns. This voluntary registration will follow the participant through the first and second vaccination.

Health experts still caution that, even with the vaccine, safety protocols should still be followed. In West Virginia that includes the governor’s mask mandate, social distancing, and avoiding large crowds.

Staats points out that since Sept. 11, 2001, the Jackson County Health Department has had written plans for mass vaccinations and pandemic preparedness.

“This has been one of our roles for almost 20 years,” she said. “The capabilities to handle this are here.”

Community partnerships and communication are the keys to handling any sort of health crisis.

“The health department has so many strong connections in this county,” Haskins said. “The various agencies such as EMS, Office of Emergency Services, and the Jackson County Board of Education work very closely with us. Not every county has been blessed with this same connection we have.”

The next round of vaccines should arrive soon.

“We still won’t know until we get that 24-hour notice,” Haskins said. “We’re working on getting the second tier lined up which is our county and city police.”

Both Haskins and Staats said that while COVID testing events will continue, the focus can now shift a little to vaccines. It is hoped that the general public will have access by the spring. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities are contracting with pharmacies to provide those vaccinations.

“Knowing we have these vaccines makes the stress level lessen a bit,” Haskins said. “I’m not quite seeing the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but I feel like I can see the path through. I have hope.”