By Matt Aiken & John Bynum / The Nugget
Kelly Hall shed a few unexpected tears when she received the new coronavirus vaccine last week.
But not because it hurt. In fact, it was just the opposite.
“It was a big rush of relief,” said the local frontline nurse. “And hope.”
Hope is a word that’s been rare for many in the medical community dealing with the impact of this prolonged pandemic.
But Maggie Payne echoed that sentiment.
“It was hope after a time that has felt pretty hopeless for a while,” said the nurse practitioner, doctoral student and owner of Dahlonega Pediatrics. “Hope. Relief. Gratitude.”
For Hall’s fiancé and fellow frontline nurse John Owens, rolling up his sleeve felt like a real civic duty.
“To me it’s like ‘Let’s get it done and move forward,’” he said. “I got the jab and said thank you and was grateful I got it.”
Hall said it also felt like a real victory after a long hard year in the trenches of the COVID battle.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like that,” she said. “But when the needle hit, for me it was a tangible feeling that I wasn’t just trying to help anymore, I was part of the solution.”
Now for many locals, the question remains. When can they get the vaccine?
Lumpkin County Health Department announced this week that it will will begin scheduling COVID vaccine appointments for people age 65 and up beginning on January 18. Appointments are not being taken until that time. Health Department officials asked the public's patience during this time of high demand.
The Nugget contacted David Palmer of the Georgia Department of Public Health to find out the details behind the roll-out in Lumpkin County and beyond.
"We are using the vaccine where it's most needed," Palmer said last week. "We just ask people to be patient. I'm looking forward to the day when we can offer the vaccine to anyone who wants it.”
For now distribution, a three-tiered approach, is being concentrated on healthcare personnel likely to be exposed to COVID-19, first responders, folks who are at risk for severe illness from the virus and people over the age of 65, plus other essential workers.
According to DPH information, the initial Phase is being divided into 1A, 1B, and 1C and includes:
Phase 1-A — people in a healthcare setting who could be exposed. This includes hospital staff, EMS, first responders, long term care facility staff and residents, and urgent care facility staff.
Phase 1-B — essential workers, people at higher risk of severe illness, pharmacy staff, educational staff, court employees, food processors, grocery store workers, transportation staff, additional police and fire staff, and adults 65 and older with multiple medical conditions and caregivers.
Phase 1-C — people at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness, not vaccinated during 1-A or Phase 1-B, such as adults 65 and older, plus adults below 65 with multiple medical conditions.
Palmer said that 1,084 providers (hospitals and other medical facilities) in Georgia applied to receive doses of the vaccine. According to statistics from the DPH, Northeast Georgia Medical Center ordered and was allocated 4,875 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 6,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine.
In addition, a few local doctors offices, plus the health department, have ordered some Moderna vaccine doses, including Gold City Convalescent Care Home, Mount Sinai Wellness Center, and Georgia Mountains Health.
Special consideration is required when choosing which manufacturer to order the vaccine from, Palmer said.
"The Moderna vaccine is similar to the shingles vaccine that is in use," he said.
Since the Moderna vaccine doesn't require as cold of a storage temperature as the Pfizer, it is more easily stored by more providers. Also, since the vaccine is a two-part treatment, there is more management involved in this kind of vaccine, compared to the flu vaccine for example, Palmer said.
"We have to thaw it out," he said. "Once it's thawed there is a time-critical window where we can use that vaccine."
EVERY DOSE COUNTS
Palmer emphasized the importance of not wasting any of the supply.
"One vial has 10 doses, so you want 10 people at the office to get it," he said.
Palmer added the DPH is now being very cautious with the distribution of the vaccine.
"We will work hand in hand with the CDC," he said. "The state will let us know when we can move on to Phase 1-B. We will be sharing that info."
He encouraged folks to watch the Georgia Department of Public Health website [dph.georgia.gov] for updates of when the vaccine will become available to the general public. The Nugget will post this information as well.
For many, when that day arrives, it won’t be a moment too soon. Lumpkin County numbers have jumped at a steady triple-digit rate every week lately.
As of Monday, the confirmed COVID count stood at 1,946 cases, up from 1,777 at the same time last week. (For a further breakdown of the numbers see accompanying front page story.)
Still, fear lingers for some regarding the safety of the new vaccine. As for side effects, Palmer said there have been some rare reports of anaphylactic allergic reactions to the vaccine.
"If you're a person allergic to bee stings you need to consult your doctor before taking it,” he said.
Payne said she understands that trepidation, but trusted the science behind it.
And she was aware that her fellow staff members would be watching to see how she’d react.
“I think that they feel reassured that I don’t have a third eye now,” she said with a laugh.
SCIENCE VS. EMOTION
Since getting the vaccine, Hall said she’s talked to many nurses and encouraged them to research the process that led to the medical breakthrough.
“I tell them ‘Take all the time you need. Just do your due diligence to make sure you’re making the decision based on facts and science versus emotion,” she said. “We’re exposed to COVID the second we walk into the hospital so we have the responsibility not only to protect our family but our community. We need to do our part to stop the spread.”
Meanwhile, Payne said she experienced some minor short-lived nausea after the vaccination. Owens said he had a bit of lightheadedness that quickly went away. Hall said she didn’t notice anything but the prick of the needle.
“I actually had no reaction,” she said.
Except perhaps for the feeling that things had finally taken a turn for the better.
“It was extremely emotional for me,” Hall said. “There were some other staff there and we just had this moment where we knew…we knew we were a part of the solution.”