By Brandon Martin
After receiving the first batch of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccinations last weekend, staff members at both campuses of Sovah Health feel they finally have the artillery needed to properly fight the pandemic.
During a Dec. 16 press conference, many members of the Sovah team drew parallels to wartime.
“This is the first chance that we’ve had to actually be able to go on the offensive with this COVID vaccine,” Alan Larson, market president and CEO of Sovah Health–Danville, said. “We’ve been treating symptoms and helping patients the best we can to recover but this is our first opportunity to actually start preventing spreading.”
John Kent, COO of Sovah Health–Danville, said having the vaccine takes him back to his Army days.
“In the Army, there are two ways you can play,” he said. “You can fight the enemy on the defense, or you can fight the enemy on the offense. We are wildly excited to finally have an offensive weapon to take to the fight and get after it.”
Kent said each campus received shipments of 975 doses of the vaccine.
“We are following the guidelines set out by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Virginia Department of Health that healthcare workers, nurses, respiratory therapists, housekeepers that are directly involved in patient care of COVID-19 patients, are the first to be vaccinated. Then, there is an algorithm that goes down the list for other frontline workers and healthcare workers,” Kent said, adding that the community will being receiving vaccinations “hopefully in the spring.”
This first shipment was created by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Kent expects to receive another shipment of Moderna as soon as it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Within our facility here in Danville, we’ve vaccinated a small group of 10,” he said. “Part of this was to try to make sure that we understood the relatively complex process for reconstituting the vaccine.”
Kent explained that the vaccine is stored in -80 degree Celsius temperatures before “it then has to be thawed out to room temperature, diluted with a very specified amount of saline solution, mixed in a very specific way and then it can be drawn and used in a very specified amount of time.”
He said that each one of those steps has its own time and temperature window.
Kent said that Sovah has enough vaccinations to administer to their staff of 2,500 across both campuses.
Dale Alward, CEO of Sovah Health–Martinsville, said his staff administered 15 doses on Dec. 15.
“We are vaccinating in multiples of five,” he said. “There are five doses per vial, so it’s important that we line up five folks at a time to ensure we don’t waste, given that it has a shelf life once it’s pulled out. The goal today and tomorrow is in the ballpark of 20-25.”
A staff member who took the vaccine detailed her experience.
“As a frontline worker, I was vaccinated yesterday and I’m here and happy to be able to speak with you today,” said Dr. Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, market chief medical officer. “I feel great. I had a headache last night, and that is the extent of any symptoms that I had. It didn’t even require a Tylenol ultimately.”
According to Gunn-Nolan, the most common side effects are a sore arm, headache, and fever. Chills and body aches are also possible, but Gunn-Nolan said Tylenol or Motrin can help alleviate any of those symptoms.
Only those over the age of 16 have been approved to take the vaccine, Gunn-Nolan said. Initial recommendations were that women who were pregnant or breastfeeding should not take the vaccine, but Gunn-Nolan said that has since been reversed.
Highlighting the safety of the vaccine, she noted it is effective 94 percent of the time.
“On average, most vaccines are tested in a Phase III trial on 33,000 people. This (Pfizer vaccine) has been tested on 150,000 plus, and we continue to increase that number every day,” Gunn-Nolan said. “There is this ray of hope for the conclusion of a long hard battle, but this is a battle we plan to win.”
She explained the vaccine is not a live vaccine and that mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) technology has been used for years in cancer research.
“This vaccine doesn’t have those extra preservatives,” she said. “Those preservatives are usually what people have reactions to or side effects from.”
The process, she said, as “mRNA is injected into the body and the body uses that, the only job it has is to make some viral protein pieces. These viral protein pieces are what your body makes the immune system respond. Other than that, mRNA is destroyed. Your body has these protein particles and they also get destroyed. That’s your body being able to recognize what it has been exposed to and recognize when it is encountering it in the future.”
It is necessary to administer the vaccine in two separate doses, she said.
“The two shots are because that first introduction is that first greeting your body needs to recognize that it is something stronger than an initial greeting,” Gunn-Nolan said. “That second shot is its second exposure to COVID-19, with a similar process and the similar mRNA that is injected. Your body creates its army, and it is ready to continue that fight.”
In the United Kingdom, she said there were some anaphylaxis in individuals who were previously prone to allergic reactions. When the vaccine is administered, the individual is monitored for 15 minutes to ensure there are no serious allergic reactions.
When addressing the rumors that aborted fetuses were being used to create the vaccination, Kent said “there is some information out there about the way some vaccinations are made. In the case of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine” they were found “to have no ethical challenges and no ties back to these cell lines for aborted fetuses.
“The challenge behind that is a concern that vaccines are made using a cell line that originated from an electively aborted fetus,” he said, and added “some of the ones (other vaccinations) to come do have some ties back to abortions that were done back in the 60s in cell lines that have been propagated over time since then. Those are the ones that folks point back to, but specific with what is to come (Pfizer and Moderna), the indication was that they were not tied to those cell lines and therefore did not have those ethical concerns.”
Even armed with the vaccine, Larson said the fight is not over. Even those who developed immunity after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis should still get vaccinated.
“Exposure is not enough to prevent you from getting COVID in the future,” Larson said. “The vaccine is the only way that we have confidence to know that you won’t get sick from being exposed.”
Kent said it also is important to continue to “wear our masks, socially distance, not gather in large groups, wash our hands and all of these things that we have been doing. We need to do that for some time now until we can get back into larger numbers of people.”
If for no other reason, Larson said to take these precautions for the healthcare workers “that are extremely tired of working for the last nine months. There’s a lot of people who are spending extra hours and extra time taking care of these very sick people.”