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Conway Medical 1st to give FDA-authorized Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in SC

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CONWAY — Tucked away in a conference room on the second floor of the Conway Medical Center, Dr. Stephen T. Brady initially joked that he wasn’t going to look as Jennifer VanAernem stuck a needle in his left arm — representing the first FDA-authorized Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doled out in Horry County and across South Carolina on Monday afternoon.

But Dr. Brady didn’t take his eyes off his arm — that needle represented history and, more importantly, hope.

“People have pandemic fatigue, isolation fatigue, plus it is incredibly emotional for families to make the decision not to be together during the holidays,” Dr. Brady said. “The only problem is that you have to realize that not being together for this holiday may mean that you have many more in the future with those relatives to be with.

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Jennifer VanAernem dilutes the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine that was given to medical staff on Monday afternoon at Conway Medical Center. Nick Masuda/Staff 

“The hope is that this will come in and it will get down to being like the regular flu and we can get out together. We can travel together. We can see world. We can be part of the universe again. And realize that we have overcome this once again.”

The 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine came via UPS at 8:15 a.m. Monday morning, with CMC scurrying to have five members of its medical team get the first doses amid a small crowd of media and hospital brass, with eyes smiling throughout the room.

The vaccine is secured in a brand-new $15,000 freezer that keeps it at -77 Celsius. Robert Gajewski, CMC’s director of pharmaceutical services, wore thick blue gloves as he took out a box to showcase how it is stored. It can be out in the open for no more than five minutes.

To Angela Williford, CMC’s vice president of quality, the tiny vial represents something huge — a path to normalcy.

“We all see this as a lifeline for all of us to getting our lives back. I don’t know whether it is the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end, but it’s extremely exciting,” Williford said. “We are so grateful that science has provided this to us and that we have a way to protect our employees and our medical staff members, and eventually, all of us from this awful disease.”

Williford indicated that 105 members of the CMC staff had already volunteered to get the vaccine — which is given in two doses three weeks apart — and that 80 would receive it on Thursday.

CMC is not requiring employees to get the vaccine, but “we are certainly encouraging them to do so,” Williford said.

While it was a day for celebration at CMC, Williford also was adamant about providing a reality check — the battle against COVID-19 is nowhere near over, and, according to Williford, the only way to truly combat the virus is the continued use of masks and social distancing.

Willford said the lack of statewide and countywide mask mandates has made the jobs of medical workers and facilities much more difficult.

CMC has 27 COVID-19 in-patients, while its ICU is “busy,” said Williford.

“We’ve been begging the county, and the local cities, and the state, and the governor, to institute mask mandates since the very beginning of this,” Williford said. “Masks are the only protection that we have right now. It would certainly help if the government would help us keep people safe and keep our hospital beds free for those that would need them otherwise.”

Dr. Simone Maybin was the third CMC staffer to get the vaccine, and feels that by participating in the first round of administering the vaccine, she and other medical personnel will be armed with more information to help combat false information.

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“The No. 1 thing people are worried about, is there enough information out there to make an informed decision,” said Dr. Maybin. “We have new treatments in medicine every day for what I do.”

While CMC got a head start on the rest of South Carolina on Monday, the rest of the state is poised to begin vaccinations starting as early as Tuesday.

Roper St. Francis Healthcare received nearly 2,000 doses of the vaccine on Monday and planned to begin injecting front-line workers on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

"We expect to have more teammates to vaccinate than vaccine doses the next few weeks," spokesman Andy Lyons said. "Because we will not have enough doses for all teammates, we've had to prioritize distribution of the vaccine in accordance with federal recommendations as well as criteria established by our Ethics Committee."

He said workers in direct care of coronavirus-positive patients or those treating patients whose status is unknown, plus emergency room and express-care workers, will be eligible to receive the vaccine first.

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Robert Gajewski, director of pharmaceutical services at Conway Medical Center, takes the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine out of a freezer on Monday afternoon. Nick Masuda/Staff

"We look forward to doing our part to end this pandemic by encouraging our teammates to receive this potentially life-saving vaccination," Lyons said.

Meanwhile, in Columbia, Lexington Medical Center expects to get around 3,000 doses for its 7,000 employees and has purchased coolers to keep the vaccines, spokeswoman Jennifer Wilson said. Prisma Health, which employs 30,000 people in the Midlands and Upstate, was still waiting Monday evening to get the tracking number on its shipments to know when they will arrive. Its pharmacy directors expect to find out sometime Monday night, said spokeswoman Tammie Epps.

Bon Secours Health System, which operates St. Francis Downtown Hospital in Greenville, will receive doses in the coming days, health system spokeswoman Jennifer Robinson said in an email. Robinson did not specify how many doses would be sent to Bon Secours, or how and when the hospital would begin administering the vaccine.

Robinson confirmed the health system would receive the vaccine the same day the state Department of Health and Environmental Control announced 43,000 doses are arriving in South Carolina between Monday and Wednesday. Some providers were receiving the vaccine directly from the federal government.

Robinson said Bon Secours is not "disclosing when or exactly where" its shipment of doses will arrive "due to security reasons."

The health system will give priority to "frontline staff" when the vaccine arrives and will "highly recommend that all associates" receive it but will not mandate it, Robinson wrote.

Prisma Health spokeswoman Sandy Dees said there are "no details yet," on when the health system's hospitals, including Greenville Memorial Hospital, would receive doses. Spartanburg Medical Center said it is also awaiting more information as to when doses will arrive.

For CMC, the early arrival changed the vibe for staffers, noticeably upbeat, with nurses pulling out their phones to take video of Monday’s activity. And while “life is not going to change for those that get vaccinated,” it wasn’t lost on Williford that history was made on the second floor of Conway Medical Center on Monday.

“We are still smack-dab in the middle of this . . . but at least there is hope now,” she said.

MK Wildeman, Seanna Adcox and Conor Hughes contributed to this report.

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

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