Grand Strand hospitals break down COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan during Phase 1

Grand Strand hospitals break down COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan during Phase 1

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) – Hospitals across South Carolina could start receiving the first round of COVID-19 vaccines in a matter of weeks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will meet on Dec. 10 to consider authorizing the Pfizer vaccine and distribute it across the country.

If the vaccine is approved, it means hospitals and healthcare providers will start implementing Phase 1-A, which means the vaccine will go to critical healthcare workers.

Now local hospital systems are getting ready to set plans in motion in order to vaccinate their own, and they’re optimistic about these next steps.

“We’re excited that we’re all beginning to take those next steps through the other side of the pandemic,” said Gayle Resetar, the chief operating officer for Tidelands Health.

Although it’s up to the state where vaccine doses will be allocated, it’s up to these hospitals to distribute amongst their own staff.

South Carolina officials have yet to establish how many doses of the vaccine the state will receive in the initial allocation, so hospitals don’t know exactly much they’ll have for their own staff, and so they must prioritize in case the amount is as small as it’s thought it will be.

“So Dr. Harmon would probably say,” said Resetar, as she motioned to her colleague, “If we know there’s going to be 500, he can tell you which 500. If there’s going to be 10, it’s going to be a little more difficult. But we started working through our process of who are those mission-critical folks that we have very little depth on our bench so to speak - specialized individuals that are critical to caring for our patients every day.”

Dr. Gerald Harmon, Tidelands Health’s VP of medical affairs, explained these are workers who are necessary for operating for the public.

“Your mission-critical folks might include people who take X-rays, that do MRIs,” he said. “All these folks are mission-critical, and they’re not always first in mind when you think about what you need to operate a healthcare institution. But that’s how the allocation of the prioritization matrix that we’ve set up is in effect to allocate a scarce resource right now, which is a vaccine.”

Brian Argo, Conway Medical Center’s chief financial officer, said the health group plans to prioritize those who are directly responding to the virus, or who are most likely to come into contact with it and then broaden out to other staff.

“If we only received a limited number where we couldn’t vaccinate all of our employees from Day One, it would go to those dealing with COVID patients first. And then it would go outward to our outward clinics,” Argo explained. “It would go out to our outward clinics, our other units, our other nurses, doctors, nurse practitioners - we would distribute it based on the demand for those folks seeing COVID patients.”

Both hospitals said they have ultra-cold refrigerators on standby to house those anticipated first doses of Pfizer’s temperamental vaccine.

It’s then up to enrolled COVID-19 vaccine providers to distribute the vaccines efficiently once they receive them. Conway Medical Center said it will administer to staff beginning at the hospital. Tidelands Health said they’re expecting to centralize it at locations associated with their employee health clinic, one in Georgetown and the other in Murrells Inlet.

CMC said they have received approval from the Department of Health and Environmental Control to distribute the vaccine.

“We are one of five in the state that was already approved to distribute the vaccine once it comes out,” Argo said. “We’re very excited about it.”

Under such restrictive circumstances, questions arise over how these very specified populations will be the only ones to first receive the vaccine. Those in the healthcare sector said they have to report those details directly to the state for each vaccine given.

“Actually within 24 hours of providing the dose of the vaccine, we have to report back to the state and the state registry who received it and the conditions under which they received it,” said Resetar.

Since the vaccine is expected to initially operate under an emergency use authorization, neither hospital will require their workers to take it at this time.

“Due to the fact that it is so new, and we don’t know a lot about the vaccine at this point in time, the long term effects and those sorts of things - we want to give our employees the option,” Argo explained.

Hospital leaders have been communicating these plans to staff to gauge who’s interested in getting the vaccine and spread more information on making that decision. Healthcare leaders believe there will be plenty of interest since hospital workers are among some of the most likely to get the flu shot.

I’m very optimistic about it and I think it’s partly because they understand as well that we’re the first part of the community that heads us all down the path of herd immunity, and to get us to some sense of normalcy and into the future,” said Resetar.

In the future, when we move past the initial allocations of the COVID-19 vaccine and into wider distribution, CMC said they can envision walk-in and drive-thru locations for the vaccine to the public.

Tidelands Health said they are willing to partner with the state for wider distribution in a similar fashion to how they have with COVID-19 testing.

WMBF Investigates reached out to other local hospital groups as well. McLeod Health said they planning to be a part of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

McLeod Health’s statement on vaccine distribution:

Acute care hospital sites are enrolled to be vaccine providers first. McLeod Health is planning to participate in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine based on the guidelines established by the CDC which includes three phases. Phase one will include critical healthcare workers. Phase two will involve vaccination of patients and phase three will begin implementation to the general public.

Our focus at McLeod Health continues to be to safely care for the patients in our hospitals and to educate the community on the importance of following the guidance from the CDC for their own well-being and that of the community. We encourage everyone to do their part in the coming weeks to stop the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands.

Grand Strand Health said they’re charting out a variety of solutions to prepare for when this phase of vaccine distribution comes about.

Dr. George Helmrich, chief medical officer for Grand Strand Health, provided this statement on the hospital’s distribution plan:

Grand Strand Health has applied to become a COVID-19 vaccine provider with SCDHEC. We anticipate being selected based upon the large volume of patients that we treat, but we are currently awaiting the enrollment decision.

Our health system’s critical focus for Phase 1 vaccine distribution is our network of colleagues across our healthcare settings. With supply potentially being limited initially, it is unknown the quantity of vaccines that Grand Strand Health will receive for the first phase. Our planning task force is actively engaged with identifying and quantifying the various staff populations to receive the vaccine in Phase 1, depending on the amount received.

In anticipation of larger quantities becoming available in Phases 2-3, Grand Strand Health will plan for administration to our community members as we learn more from the State. We are closely monitoring developments of DHEC’s South Carolina COVID-19 Response Plan for further updates.

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