Rowan Medical Center vaccinates first staff members against COVID-19

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2020

SALISBURY — Passersby on Tuesday night may have heard sounds of joy inside Novant Health Rowan Medical Center when the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered.

Roughly nine months after the coronavirus made its appearance in Rowan County, the hospital received 1,260 doses of a vaccine developed by Moderna, a biotechnology company based in Massachusetts, and given emergency approval last week by the Food and Drug Administration. The vaccine arrived at a hospital loading dock at about 5:20 p.m. About 40 minutes later, pharmacist and pharmacy manager Carla Kennedy walked a box of doses through a hallway with hospital staff members waving purple and white pom-poms, clapping and cheering.

“The word that keeps popping into my head is hope, especially in this time of year,” said Gary Blabon, the hospital’s president and chief operating officer. “We’ve been in this pandemic for 10 months now, and, honestly, in the last two, three weeks we’ve seen our highest COVID numbers in the hospital. To know that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is here is giving hope — the excitement of our team here in knowing it’s finally coming.”

The 1,260 doses of the vaccine represent roughly 60% of an allocation received by the Rowan County Health Department on Tuesday. The health department kept the remainder and plans to vaccinate people in high-priority categories as well — health care workers fighting COVID-19 as well as long-term care staff and residents. The Salisbury VA also expects to receive a shipment of vaccines this week.

Dr. Zeeshan Ahmad, an intensive care unit physician, Nurse Kaylen Renfrow and Dr. Abayomi Agbebi, who specializes in infectious diseases, were among the first people vaccinated at Rowan Medical Center on Tuesday.

Josh Bergeron / Salisbury Post – Dr. Zeeshan Ahmad, an intensive care unit physician, was the first person to receive the Moderna vaccine Tuesday at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.

Besides taking a step toward protecting himself from infection, Agbebi said he was vaccinated to show other staff members it was OK. As he was being vaccinated, a co-worker recorded a smartphone video. The doctor pointed to the camera and talked about the experience.

The coronavirus pandemic, Agbebi said, has been filled with “ups and downs.” In his job at the hospital, Agbebi often finds himself at the front of the frontline, including helping assisted living facilities so hospitals can maintain room for the sickest patients.

“Every time I have a patient who recovers, it’s just a thing of joy and relief just to see someone recover and go home,” he said. “And then, there’s also the lows when you have patients that just don’t recover to leave the hospital … It’s a rollercoaster.”

Josh Bergeron / Salisbury Post – Dr. Abayomi Agbebi on Tuesday talks to a co-worker who is recording a smartphone video after being vaccinated for COVID-19.

Agbebi said he’s followed the development of coronavirus vaccines closely. Any positive news has been welcome. He said the vaccine’s arrival represented joy, hope and relief for him, his family, his patients, the community and the team of people who provide care at the hospital.

“There are better days ahead. There is nothing to fear with this vaccine,” he said.

Josh Bergeron / Salisbury Post – Carla Kennedy, who manages the pharmacy at the hospital, and David Ezzo transport the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and equipment to help administer the vaccine into the pharmacy on Tuesday night.

The vaccine, the proverbial light at the end of a pandemic that’s been one of the leading causes of death in Rowan County in 2020, arrived in a plain Penske rental van that backed up to a hospital loading dock. With 10 doses to a vial, the vaccines were packed tightly in a medium-sized white box. Hospital staff transported the white box on a four-wheeled dolly to the facility’s pharmacy along with equipment to administer the vaccine.

Kennedy opened the vaccine box to check its contents and pulled out a single, still-frozen vial.

Josh Bergeron / Salisbury Post – Carla Kennedy, who manages the pharmacy at the Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, shows a vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which contains 10 doses.

After she walked the vaccines through a hallway of cheering co-workers, a small group gathered in the hospital’s cafe, which had been converted into a temporary vaccination clinic. The group traded jokes and happy, casual conversation while waiting their turn. Those being vaccinated passed off their smartphones to co-workers to capture the moment.

Renfrow, an intensive care nurse, said she was nervous and excited before receiving the vaccine. She didn’t plan to be one of the first in Rowan County to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but she had done plenty of reading about what others experienced and talked to co-workers.

“Hopefully, this is the beginning of some relief for all of us,” she said. “It’s been rough for all of us lately, for lack of a better way to say it … especially when you have to send patients that are younger than you into hospice.”

Renfrow said she was surprised when the process was done and that she “didn’t feel a thing.”

Blabon was also among those vaccinated Tuesday, saying it was important for the senior leadership team to show staff it’s safe and effective. Until people are able to get vaccinated, Blabon encouraged mask-wearing, keeping distance from others and washing hands.

Josh Bergeron / Salisbury Post – Rowan Medical Center President Gary Blabon, left, gets help from Desiree Dunston, senior director of professional and support services, in signing up for an appointment to be vaccinated.

The Moderna vaccine is administered in two doses that are 28 days apart and have the same composition. It’s an mRNA vaccine, which is given in the upper arm muscle and makes spike proteins that simulate a natural infection of COVID-19. The body’s immune system makes antibodies in response to the spike proteins created by the vaccine that help prevent an infection.

Chief Clinical Officer Larry Weems II said the Moderna vaccine as well as another developed by Pfizer are estimated to be 95% effective. That means 95 of 100 people will be protected from COVID-19. Weems said studies so far have shown the remaining five have a more mild response to the virus.

Josh Bergeron / Salisbury Post – Shellee Dixon, a pharmacist at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, draws the first dose of the Moderna vaccine administered at the hospital.

For workers at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, Weems said, the vaccine will provide a better barrier to the virus. While health care workers don protective gear, they may unwittingly infect themselves by touching their eyes or face after coming into contact with a contagious person.

“By having that vaccine, it’s just another layer of protection for that team member when they’re going in to see patients and care for them. They have a little more assurance that they’re going to be OK at the end of the day,” he said.

In addition to the vaccines administered at Rowan Medical Center, roughly 67 Rowan Countians have been vaccinated against COVID-19 so far. That includes people who have received a vaccine in another county and live here. Roughly 24,500 people in North Carolina have received the first dose of a vaccine — either Pfizer or Moderna.