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'Beginning to an end of a pandemic' - Northeast Georgia Health System begins administering COVID-19 vaccines to staff
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Staff members at Northeast Georgia Medical Center show off their arms after receiving the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. - photo by Nick Watson

Seven Northeast Georgia Health System frontline health care workers pulled up their sleeves Thursday, Dec. 17, and flexed after receiving the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. John Delzell, the incident commander at the health system, said he sees these first doses as “hope for the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

“I feel like it’s the beginning to an end of a pandemic,” said Tamika Johnson, the charge nurse in the mobile medical unit who received one of the first doses.

Johnson said she lost a close family member just a couple of days ago.

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Vaccines against COVID-19 are administered to personnel at Northeast Georgia Medical Center on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. - photo by Nick Watson

“This helped me to decide that I needed to do whatever it took to make this better, so therefore I’m here getting the vaccine,” she said.

Elizabeth Larkins, the director of critical care at Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said there have been “so many painful days” and said the vaccine’s arrival could be the “beginning of real true hope and optimism.”

According to NGHS data, there have been 489 total deaths since the beginning of the pandemic across NGHS.

“You wake up every day and you look at the count,” Larkins said. “Some of those patients you know and some of them you don’t, but every one of those is someone who had a family, who had a future ahead of them.”

Larkins said she celebrated her 49th birthday this week.

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Elizabeth Larkins, the director of critical care at Gainesville's Northeast Georgia Medical Center, looks away while receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. She was one of seven frontline health care workers to receive a dose Thursday, Dec. 17. - photo by Nick Watson

“I’m really hoping that my 50th birthday maybe I can spend in a bar or at the beach or hugging my friends,” she said.

NGHS reported 263 confirmed COVID-19 positive patients being treated Thursday across its facilities with another 58 patients awaiting test results. The largest group of patients, 145, are at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.

The health system received nearly 5,000 doses in the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, and Delzell said it could take a week or more to administer those doses to the health care workers. Delzell said the vaccine is not being mandated but strongly encouraged.

“It’s not being rushed,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, the hospital’s medical director of infectious disease medicine. “It went through all the steps that it should, went through rigorous review and given to thousands of people and went through all the appropriate approval process before the emergency use authorization. The reason we have the vaccine within a year of the pandemic is because … with everybody coming together, collaborating and just doing it so efficiently.”

Several of those workers said they trusted in the science behind the vaccine.

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Dr. April McDonald, a pulmonology and critical care medicine physician, was one of seven health care workers at Northeast Georgia Health System to receive the COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 17, 2020. - photo by Nick Watson

“By me doing this, being one of the first, hopefully I can be an inspiration or at least someone seeing me do this (it) can then encourage them to do the same,” said Dr. April McDonald, a pulmonology and critical care medicine physician.

Delzell and other NGHS officials continue to work on making more beds available to COVID patients as the numbers continue to trend upward locally.

There were 12 available beds at the Gainesville hospital Thursday and 10 beds at the Braselton campus.

NGHS officials moved the first patients Wednesday, Dec. 16, into the COVID-19 overflow cots that were set up in the Laurelwood gymnasium. There were 16 stretchers placed in the facility with enough space to fit 30 patients if needed.

“Our goal is to never be overrun. … If we get past those, we’ll find another space,” Delzell said.

The health care workers vaccinated Thursday addressed the concern held by some about getting the vaccine.

“I know there are people out there who are afraid to take the vaccine, and I think that we have to push past our fear and ask ourselves, ‘What am I really afraid of?” Larkins asked. “Am I afraid of getting COVID or am I afraid of a shot? Am I afraid of a relatively low possibility of some minor side effects, or am I afraid of giving COVID to my 84-year-old parents who then might not survive?’”

While the vaccine’s arrival has given people hope, health officials are still asking people to follow the safety guidelines of wearing a mask in public, washing hands frequently and avoiding big gatherings. 

“It all depends on how many people in the community get vaccinated, because we need to achieve what we call herd immunity, which means as a community we have enough people who are vaccinated and are immune (so) we can protect those are not able to get the vaccine,” Mannepalli said.

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Andy Cason, a respiratory therapist at Gainesville's Northeast Georgia Medical Center, pulls up his sleeve Thursday, Dec. 17 at the hospital. Cason was one of the seven recipients Thursday of a COVID-19 vaccine. - photo by Nick Watson