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'This is gold now': COVID-19 vaccinations spread to hospitals across SC

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MURRELLS INLET — As the clock crept past 12:54 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, it took only a mere five seconds for Ashley Griffith to etch her name in Georgetown County history.

The Tidelands Health registered nurse barely winced as she was injected with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, moments later admitting that it hadn’t set in yet that she will evermore be the first person in the county to get the shot that carries with it immense hope for medical personnel and the community alike.

“I’ve seen what this virus can do, firsthand, and I’m just ready for it to go away,” Griffith said. “I think it is so important to get vaccinated because there are so many people that are carrying it around and don’t even realize it, but then I see the people that it is affecting in the ICU — it is so important to get vaccinated, so we can all get immunity and have this pandemic end, or at least dwindle. It’s been a very long few months.”

A dozen Tidelands Health staffers lined up to get the first doses of the vaccine at the Waccamaw Community Hospital, with the facility receiving its first shipment early Wednesday morning after watching other hospitals across the state get started with the vaccination process as early as Monday.

Dr. Gerald Harmon admitted having a bit of patience as the shipments made their way to Murrells Inlet was a bit tough.

“Waiting is not really in my DNA ... if I see an opportunity to interact or do something, I will do that,” Harmon said. “Waiting is difficult for me, it’s difficult for my colleagues. You see a need, you want to address it now.”

Gayle Resetar, chief operating officer at Tidelands Health, said that more than 700 staff members had already signed up to be vaccinated, with priority being given to those who deal directly with COVID-19 inpatients — which is a sizable group considering Tidelands is at 114 percent hospital capacity, 109 percent ICU capacity and is currently hosting 40 COVID-19 inpatients.

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The first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine were doled out at Tidelands Health's Waccamaw Community Hospital in Murrels Inlet on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Nick Masuda/Staff

Tidelands is not requiring staffers to get the vaccine, although it does hope that word of mouth among colleagues will settle any concerns that staffers have over the vaccine’s potential side effects.

Between their hospital facilities in Murrells Inlet and Georgetown, Tidelands has 1,475 doses of the vaccine, all stored in ultra-cold freezers on hospital grounds with around-the-clock monitoring — a prerequisite to receiving the vaccine.

Resetar indicated that while the vaccine will eventually travel to some of its other outlets, storing it at the hospitals allowed Tidelands to pay special attention to not wasting any dosage due to improper handling.

“At the very beginning of this, no one wants to come up with a circumstance where anyone has wasted the vaccine. This is gold now. This is pretty precious,” Resetar said.

Tidelands cardiologist Victor Diaz-Gonzalez was second in line Wednesday, and exhaustively read materials covering the science behind the Pfizer vaccine. He said he came away satisfied and excited to lead by example, with his colleagues and the community.

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And Diaz-Gonzalez admitted that getting the vaccine provided a personal deep breath, of sorts.

“It gives me a little more self-confidence that I’m going to be developing immunity, hopefully in the next 10 days,” Diaz-Gonzalez said. “I don’t think it’s going to change the issues of wearing a mask or protective personal equipment or social distancing until we get large volumes vaccinated.”

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Dr. Victor Diaz-Gonzalez, a cardiologist with Tidelands Health, is the second to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Georgetown County. Nick Masuda/Staff

Tidelands wasn’t alone in getting a chance to partake in the vaccinations, as a small crowd watched Dr. Chris Lombardozzi become the first to be injected with the Pfizer vaccine at Spartanburg Regional — one of 3,900 doses that the health system initially has on hand.

The doses have arrived in the Upstate at a critical time as cases hit new highs across the region and hospital resources are stretched to critical levels. 

In Spartanburg County, more than 93 percent of hospital beds were occupied as of late Monday night, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. With Christmas on the horizon, experts worry indoor gatherings will only make matters worse.

"Our hospitals are full," Lombardozzi, Spartanburg Regional's chief medical officer, said before receiving the vaccine Wednesday. "The entire Upstate is full of people with COVID at numbers we have never contemplated before, ever."

It likely will be months before the vaccine is available to the public at large as the doses available are administered to groups based on priority, such as frontline medical workers and those at higher risk of developing serious complications from the disease. 

Lombardozzi emphasized the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and said he was hopeful it would be widely available sooner rather than later.

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Dr. Chris Lombardozzi receives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine administered by Spartanburg Regional Health System. Conor Hughes/Staff

"As the numbers have gotten higher and higher and higher, we've looked for this vaccine as hope, he said. "We want to get people vaccinated as fast as we possibly can."

Hundreds of miles away, Harmon concurred, indicating that it was finally time to flip the script on COVID-19.

“This is the first chance we get to go on offense,” Harmon said.

Conor Hughes contributed to this report.

Reach Nick Masuda at 843-607-0912. Follow him on Twitter at @nickmasudaphoto. 

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