A year into pandemic, health system senses hope.
The Cracker Barrel better get a table ready for Elsie Pinyan — she’s coming for supper.
The 92-year-old Winston resident received the 10,000th dose of COVID-19 vaccine that Tanner Health System has administered to the public since it began hosting vaccination clinics in January. And Pinyan said the first thing she wanted to do was go out to eat.
Pinyan received her shot — a second dose of the Moderna vaccine — during a vaccination clinic the health system hosted at Mill Town Music Hall in Bremen.
Educators with Bremen City Schools also received their first-dose shots at the event.
The health system was already nearing its 10,000th dose last week, when it hosted a March 10 vaccination clinic at Carrollton’s Tabernacle Baptist Church for those age 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities and staff from the Carroll County School System, Carrollton City Schools, Oak Mountain Academy and Oak Grove Montessori School. More than 1,000 local educators received their first-dose shots that day.
Altogether, Tanner has administered almost 14,300 doses of vaccine, including more than 3,750 to its team of healthcare workers and medical staff.
Tanner’s goal is widespread vaccination, and its greatest obstacle is vaccine supply. As quickly as it receives vaccine doses from the state, however, the health system is planning vaccination clinics and encouraging people to register.
“We decided early that we were going to be our region’s COVID-19 vaccination leader,” said Loy Howard, president and CEO of Tanner. “Our leadership, our medical staff, our employees — everyone sees the vaccine as the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s safe and it works. We are uniquely positioned — with our staff, experience and local partnerships — to get as many vaccines administered as possible.”
Within hours of the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine hitting the docks at Tanner in late December, the health system’s first vaccination clinic for healthcare workers had been set up at Tanner Medical Center/Carrollton. Vaccinations for staff at Tanner Medical Center/Villa Rica, Higgins General Hospital in Bremen and Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama followed in subsequent days.
Many on staff at Tanner considered their first dose of vaccine a Christmas miracle.
As vaccine shipments continued to arrive, Tanner opened vaccinations to the public in accord with state guidelines, administering vaccines to those age 65 and older.
Now that the state is widening the criteria for vaccine access, Tanner’s only obstacle is vaccine supply.
“We can’t give vaccines that we don’t have,” said Howard. “But we’re holding nothing back. Ultimately, everyone in our region who wants a vaccine should be able to get one — and we hope most people want one.”
One of the major hurdles when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination is logistics.
Two of the three vaccines that have received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require specialized refrigeration to store; the mRNA vaccines must be kept extremely cold. They also require two doses to achieve maximum effect.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — the first approved — must be kept in deep-freeze with two doses administered about three weeks apart. The Moderna vaccine also has to be kept frozen, with two doses administered about four weeks apart.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine — the most recent with EUA — doesn’t have such rigorous storage requirements and can be completed in a single dose, but Tanner has received very few doses of that vaccine so far.
Once administered, those who receive the vaccine must be observed for at least 15 minutes to ensure there are no unexpected side effects. Social distancing requirements mean that those who are being observed must stay six feet apart.
Tanner also has to track who has received which vaccine, when they’re due for their second dose and make sure supply for those second doses is available.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Denise Taylor, senior vice president and chief community health and brand officer at Tanner. “We have to account for keeping our vaccine inventory safe, the dosing we’ll need, the paperwork that has to accompany everyone being vaccinated, planning the second-dose clinics, ensuring we’re only giving vaccine to those who qualify, the clinical staff to administer the vaccine and observe those who receive it to ensure there are no complications, and communicate with all the stakeholders about registration, supply, availability and criteria.”
The health system has called on current staff, physicians, retired nurses and nursing students from the University of West Georgia to administer the vaccine. It’s also partnered with others in the community — like Tabernacle Baptist Church and Mill Town Music Hall — to serve as mass vaccination sites, where people can receive a vaccine indoors, socially distanced, and be safely observed.
“Everyone has stepped up in tremendous ways,” said Taylor. “This is a chance to give a shot that could save someone’s life. What a tremendous opportunity to have an impact.”
The health system plans to continue its vaccination clinics as long as it’s necessary, said Howard, expanding access in accordance with state guidelines until everyone who wants to be vaccinated can be. While Tanner can’t control how much vaccine it receives, it can keep rolling it out as quickly as possible.
“We’re going to administer vaccine just as fast as we get it,” he said. “This has been a long, hard year. We need people to wear masks, socially distance, wash their hands — and as soon as they can, to get vaccinated. We, too, miss seeing our loved ones, eating in restaurants, going to the movies. If we understand that we’re all in this together in fighting this virus — just like we were a year ago when our first cases arrived — we can get back to normal.”
More on Tanner’s vaccination efforts can be found at tanner.org/vaccine