SKOWHEGAN — Pharmacists, nurses and staff from the medical offices arrived in Skowhegan’s Redington-Fairview General Hospital conference room Wednesday morning around 7:30 a.m. to prepare for inoculations against COVID-19.

They started with Dr. Gina Gomez, as the vaccine was prepared by pharmacy director Lisa Caswell.

“It makes me feel hopeful that COVID-19 is eventually going to be controlled; it makes me feel hope for our community and that our elderly patients will get protected,” Gomez said prior to receiving the vaccine. “Hopefully we can convince more people to get vaccinated so that we can control infection in our communities.”

Gomez said she was excited to be receiving the first of two doses of the Moderna vaccine; she was hopeful that she will eventually be able to travel to see her family in the Philippines, whom she has not seen in nearly a year.

The new vaccine was developed by Moderna and approved last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration just a week after states around the country received their first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna vaccine requires a second dose of the same vaccine at least 28 days after the initial dose.

Gomez, a hospitalist, has worked at Redington-Fairview for more than two decades and has been treating COVID patients since the coronavirus pandemic began. The hardest part about this pandemic and taking care of patients, she said, is the emotional toll it has taken on herself and colleagues as well as the patients and family members. Additionally, she’s had to separate from her family when exposure to COVID-19 has happened while treating patients.

“It certainly gets very emotional, you feel for all the patients and their family about what’s going on,” Gomez said. “The virus has really changed the way we practice. I am someone who likes to hug my patients, friends and family and right now I can’t do that.”

Caswell confirmed that the hospital had received all 500 doses in the shipment that was delivered on Tuesday; by the end of the day Wednesday, she expected about 60 staff members at the hospital to be vaccinated with others continuing throughout the week. 

“It feels very momentous like there should be music and fanfare,” Caswell said.

Inoculations at Redington-Fairview began the same day that the state shattered another single-day record of cases with 748, beating the previous single-day high set last week by more than 150 cases. At Wednesday’s briefing, Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah said that at least 8,001 health care workers had received their vaccine around the state.

Of the 17,695 confirmed cases of COVID-19 that the state has seen since March, health care workers account for 2,309 cases, Shah said.

Even so, hopes were lifted across the region this Christmas week as the Moderna vaccine was administered. Delta Ambulance in Waterville began inoculating its crews Wednesday. At Northern Light Inland Hospital in Waterville, staff vaccinations were to begin after the hospital received 200 doses Wednesday, with more vaccines expected next week. The vaccine is voluntary for staff there.

“This is a very exciting day for all of us because the vaccine brings hope,” Terri Vieira, president of the Waterville hospital, said Wednesday. “It marks a big boost in our efforts to combat COVID-19. We are hopeful that all staff who want the vaccine will be able to get it within the next month — depending on the availability of the vaccine.”

John Merchant, director of the pharmacy at Inland, said the hospital is also making special efforts to “help employees make an informed choice by offering vaccine education forums via Zoom and personal, one-on-one support so they can ask questions and understand the science around the effectiveness and safety of this important vaccine.”

“The vaccine is preservative and latex-free,” Merchant said. “Studies have shown it is 50% effective after the first dose and 94% effective after the second dose.”

At Skowhegan’s Redington-Fairview, the first round of offerings for the vaccine went to staff in the Intensive Care Unit, Emergency Department and the staff members taking care of patients in the COVID beds in the Med-Surg unit. Caswell estimates there to be about 775 employees at the hospital.

With the help of the hospital’s IT staff, an online portal was created for staff members to schedule a time to be inoculated. At the time of their first dose, staff members will also schedule their second dose.

The next group to be offered the vaccine at Redington-Fairview includes those that offer direct patient care, including those who screen patients at the door with COVID-19 questions.

Ashley Perry was the first nurse at the hospital to receive the vaccine, getting a shot just after Gomez.

“As a nurse, we are looking at ways every day to keep ourselves safe, our patients safe and our families safe,” Perry said. “As a nurse, we are hands-on and known for our compassion. We try to reassure them, but we’re behind a plastic shield and all they see is our eyes, so it’s difficult.”

A mother of seven, she says that receiving the vaccine is an important way to keep her family safe.

“I want to keep the people that I love the most safe: my kids and my mom and my dad,” Perry said. “The vaccine is my way of protecting them and doing my part of getting back to some sort of a normal life.”

Melissa Russell is the nurse manager in the Special Care Unit and says that how care is provided has changed, but the level of compassion that comes with the care has not.

“COVID has drastically impacted our workflow and our workload. We have stepped it up and we work as a team to be a united front to try to help mitigate the transmission and care for these patients,” Russell said. “Everybody is still ensuring that the caliber of the care that we’re giving is equal if not better than what we’ve always done.”

The virus has impacted every aspect of Russell and her colleagues’ lives and she hopes that by receiving the vaccine, community members will do the same when it is available to them.

“The virus is real and people are getting really sick and we need to take measures to protect each other,” Russell said. “I hope that the community can come together and be united the same way that the hospital has come together to be united.”

 

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