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Roper coronavirus vaccine drive-thru opens in North Charleston to eager SC seniors

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NORTH CHARLESTON — The sun had just come over the horizon as three dozen doctors, nurses and other medical staff bowed their heads in a mostly empty parking lot. 

Thanking God for temperatures in the 50s, one of the doctors asked that the group serve as healers for those already lined up in vehicles nearby, and hundreds of others expected to come later that day. The chorus of "Amen" was muffled by masks. 

Amid an anxious push to get help to some of the state's most vulnerable people, Roper St. Francis Healthcare opened a coronavirus vaccine drive-thru Wednesday next to the North Charleston Coliseum. By appointment only, and for people 70 years and older, hospitals officials hope the system will get vaccines into the arms of tens of thousands in the coming weeks. 

A short time after the prayer, pharmacists sat at a table where they jabbed syringes into inch-long vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, then stuck an identification label on them before taking them to one of four nearby stations. There, nurses and medical assistants armed with bandages, gloves and alcohol pads prepared for drivers who were navigating cone-lined lanes. 

One of those loaded needles went into the arm of Ron Henderson, 77, who was the first person to make it through with a vaccine. Medical staff applauded the early arrivals.  

After getting his shot, he was directed to a nearby parking lot where nurse practitioners asked him to idle for at least 15 minutes to make sure he didn't have a negative reaction. Charleston County paramedics sat nearby just in case. 

“I got two grandbabies and I don’t want to be carrying anything around them,” Henderson said. The Summerville real estate agent added: "I want to see us get back to normal."

Other early arrivals Wednesday said they were also motivated by family members.

"Happy wife, happy life," said William Mains, 78.

Mains arrived an hour before his scheduled appointment. He was concerned about being late due to a traffic crash. 

“I wish I had a nickel for every shot I had in my life,” he said. “I would be a rich man.” 

Some of those who were first to get a shot said they weren't close to any of the more than 5,700 confirmed coronavirus deaths in South Carolina. But the threat of the virus due to their age, and medical conditions, led them to get a vaccine. 

“I have (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) with emphysema," said David Keene, 71. "So, if I get COVID-19, I’m done.”

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Keene, like the others who got a shot Wednesday, is scheduled to receive a second dose in three weeks. 

Back at the drive-thru, the number of vehicles navigating the parking lot had slowed by 9 a.m. But the relief of those vaccinated continued. Some shot video of loved ones as they got their injections. 

Dr. Robert Oliverio, a chief medical officer, stood a few steps away from one of the lanes. On Tuesday, Gov. Henry McMaster had visited the drive-thru and urged hospitals to get vaccine doses into arms as quickly as possible. 

As of midday Tuesday, Roper had used 71 percent of the 15,600 doses it had received, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

A limited supply of vaccine doses and available staff restricts how many shots the nonprofit health care system can give out in a day, Oliverio said. But he shared the governor's desire to put the vaccine to use. 

“This is a precious commodity that doesn’t do any good in a freezer,” he said.

At the nearby table where they prepared vaccines doses, clinical pharmacists Jennifer Sterrett and Kristen Loveland had moved under a heated tent, a perk of preparing the treasured syringes. 

The night before, Sterrett took vials of the Pfizer vaccine out of a freezer and moved them to a refrigerator to thaw. 

Giving out shots in a hospital is one thing, where doses can more easily be stored in a refrigerated climate. But in the middle of a parking lot, with unknown weather, a drive-thru can pose problems. The Pfizer vaccine can be refrigerated for up to five days but thawed vials cannot be refrozen.

Once mixed with a saline solution, doses must be in someone's arm within six hours. Unopened vials sat in a portable refrigerator nearby in case they weren't needed. And the pharmacists made sure only to load up a handful of syringes at a time, so as not to start the clock too early. They had 80 vials on hand, enough for a little over the 500 or so people they were expecting Wednesday. 

“I think I should work for UPS next,” Sterrett said.

As the flow of vehicles navigating the lot nearby slowed to a trickle in the late morning, senior medical staff gathered again to plan for the days and weeks ahead. Frigid temperatures and wet weather hadn't hit Wednesday morning, but rain and cooler air would come.

And instead of waiting three weeks before attempting to vaccinate 1,000 people a day, leaders were already talking about expanding efforts sooner. As long as they had enough doses. 

Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter @bystephenhobbs.

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