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UPMC Williamsport administers Pfizer vaccine to frontline workers

Medical staff at UPMC Susquehanna’s Williamsport hospital are administering the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to its first round of recipients — front-line workers, who have the most contact with the virus, hospital officials said.

First, frontline workers with the most exposure to the virus will receive the vaccine. After that, hospital staff will work outwards and administer the vaccine to other parts of the system.

Steve Johnson, the UPMC Susquehanna regional president, said the distribution of the vaccines marks the beginning of a return to normalcy and an end to the tragedies wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today is a celebration of the courage and example being set by our patient care staff every day,” Johnson said. “These vaccines will help us protect our caregivers who are tirelessly working day and night caring for our friends, family members and members of our communities.”

In all, UPMC Williamsport has 390 vials, totaling around 1,950 doses, to distribute among its staff, according to Julie Barner, director of pharmacy at Williamsport Regional Medical Center. According to the state’s pressroom, an initial 97,500 doses have been slated to be delivered to 87 hospitals across the state by Monday.

Meanwhile, there are around 5,000 employees in the UMPC’s local system, including the Williamsport Regional Medical Center, Divine Providence Campus, Lock Haven, Muncy, Wellsboro and Cole locations.

According to Heather Stafford, director of infection control, the doses are limited to what the state Department of Health is allotting to the hospital, and more vaccines should be distributed in the coming weeks to help supplement the three-phase process.

Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 interim vaccination plan, available at health.pa.gov, spells out that process. After frontline workers and nursing home workers are vaccinated in phase one, phase two will help vaccinate vulnerable populations, such as critical workers, people with high-risk conditions and people with vaccine access challenges. Finally, the third phase will offer vaccines to the general public.

According to Barner, the vials of Pfizer are only viable for five days under refrigeration once they have been dethawed. Once the vials are dethawed, the doses must be used within 6 hours to be effective.

Because of this, Williamsport Regional Medical Center will also offer the vaccine to other personnel in the hospital, for the sake of not allowing the vaccine to go to waste.

Caroline McNamara was one of the first frontliners to receive the vaccine Friday afternoon. McNamara is an intensive care unit nurse with a personal investment into the success of the vaccine.

Toward the beginning of December, McNamara’s father was diagnosed with COVID-19, and she took a few days off from working while he spent time among the sickest patients in the hospital. However, McNamara said he made a full recovery. McNamara said her story allows her to better understand what her patients and their families are going through now that she is back.

Per the vaccine, McNamara said she barely felt the needle.

“It feels fine. The flu vaccine hurt, but this didn’t,” McNamara said.

The Pfizer vaccine is “definitely safe,” according to Sue Duchman, a vice president and chief nursing officer for Williamsport Regional Medical Center.

Duchman explained the vaccine has gone through multiple levels of screening. She said thousands of people have received the vaccine with little to no symptoms.

“The most commonly reported side effects, which typically lasted several days, were pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, and fever,” the U.S. Food and Drug Association said on its website.

“It’s protein-based,” Duchman said. “It is not a live virus — you can’t get COVID from it.”

According to Duchman, the virus creates an antibody, which then fights the virus in the body.

“These vaccines create hope and hopefulness as we’re dealing with a pandemic full of pain and suffering that until recently seemed to have no end in sight,” Johnson said. “They are a sign that someday soon we will get back to family events, holiday parties, social gatherings and everything else we’ve missed so much this year.”

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