SMCAS medics receive Moderna COVID-19 vaccinations

BERRIEN COUNTY — Sofia De Jong, a medic with the Southwestern Michigan Community Ambulance Service was one of the first members of the team to get the first of two doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday morning.

“We drove up with my supervisors,” De Jong said. “We checked in from the car, and someone came out and got us. We went straight back with a nurse and got the vaccine.”

SMCAS medics received the first of two rounds of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccination Tuesday morning. The medics are a part of the first phase of its distribution in the area.

De Jong said the crew went to the Berrien County Health Department in St. Joseph to receive their vaccines. After waiting the 15 minutes after each person received the vaccine, they returned to Niles.

“It was a pretty stress-free process on our ends,” De Jong said.

The vaccine is something both she and SMCAS Executive Director Brian Scribner have been looking forward to since it was being discussed in November and December.

“Our job is to take care of people and be here,” De Jong said. “It feels good to have that extra layer of protection for myself. We can wear personal protection equipment all day long, but there’s still a chance.”

A few hours after receiving the vaccine, De Jong was still feeling energetic. Scribner was feeling a bit tired, but said the team had made allowances for that.

“We’ve gotten 10 of our people [vaccinated] today. We have to stagger everyone, because some people will have an immune reaction to it and feel a little sick for a bit,” Scribner said. “We have to coordinate everyone and get that second dose.”

Even through the tired feeling, Scribner felt relieved to have gotten the shot.

“It’s kind of a sign of relief that we’ve made it to this point. It’s been a hard-fought year,” he said. “I think we are all happy our folks are going to be more protected. They go into harm’s way every day. We’ve given them plenty of PPE, but this layer or protection is the most important and having it there gives us a lot of relief and peace of mind.”

De Jong and Scribner said regional medical directors and doctors had helped educate their staff about the vaccine, and had addressed the questions and concerns they had prior to receiving the first shot.

“I’m glad that I got it. When it becomes more widely available, I encourage people to get it,” De Jong said. “Just because it’s one of the ways we are going to be able to get COVID under control.”

Gillian Conrad, communications manager with the Berrien County Health Department, said the vaccines are still in Phase 1A of the vaccination schedule. Phase 1A includes people who work in health care settings who have both direct and indirect exposure to patients, and residents of long-term care facilities.

Within Phase 1A, there are priority groups. Priority groups one and two are within 1A, and both include critical infrastructure including those who work in hospitals, emergency departments and intensive care units.

“Spectrum Health Lakeland was in charge of making sure they could vaccinate all associates who work for the hospital system in that direct, critical role,” Conrad said. “Our responsibility is more within priority two and three. Priority two is all about the long-term care facilities, which have had a large number of vulnerable residents.”

Conrad said the health department has worked with the state to ensure local long-term care facilities are paired with national partners. Walgreens and CVS are two of the drugstores in the state pairing with skilled nursing facilities in the area to ensure residents and professionals receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Under our purview are also adult foster homes,” Conrad said of the BCHD. “It could be older adults or adults with diminished physical and mental capabilities in these assisted residential homes, so we will be taking care of that. That’s where our focus is right now. That is where our EMS personnel have come in, medical first responders and EMTs – that’s who we are in charge of. SMCAS was ready and on the spot.”

Conrad said the vaccine schedules have been put together by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The BCHD and the state are following their guidelines.

“A top concern that I’ve heard is that residents are worried they’re not going to know when it’s their turn [to receive the vaccination],” Conrad said. “We haven’t done a ton of public information, as we are targeting these specific groups. We are working directly with employers, like SMCAS, and making coordinated plans for when their staff can come to us.”

The vaccine is not currently at a level of availability for the general public. Conrad said when it is, people will not need to be worried about missing a notification.

“We will shout it from the rooftops,” Conrad said. “As vaccine availability does increase, more and more places will have it available. It won’t just be the health department.”

Conrad said the BCHD will be posting information to its social media and website as soon as it becomes available. Community members can also subscribe to the BCHD’s community vaccine newsletter for updates.

Earlier in the year, Scribner said he knew people were tired of hearing about COVID-19.

“[COVID-19 is] all we get to think about,” he said, after receiving his vaccine on Tuesday. “It’s going to be a different world once we get this under control.”

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