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The latest South Carolina Public Radio News reports on the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to fight it.

The Vaccine Dream Becomes a Reality at MUSC

Shemika Champion becomes the first health care worker in the Lowcountry to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at  MUSC in Charleston.
Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio
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Shemika Champion becomes the first health care worker in the Lowcountry to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at MUSC in Charleston.
Journalists watch as the first health care worker in the Lowcountry gets the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at MUSC.  December 2020
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio
Journalists capture the moment the first health care worker in the Lowcountry gets the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at MUSC.  December 2020

A gaggle of journalists gathers around a tent outside the  Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.  With cameras, cords and microphones flailing, a curious hawk perched upon a nearby rooftop peers down at the crowd.

Inside the tent on this cold December day, 34-year-old Shemika Champion appears calm, even though a flurry of flashes surrounds her as a needle protrudes about an inch away from her arm.

"I'm just saying a little prayer to myself and getting ready," says Champion. 

A Lowcountry First

The pediatric nurse volunteered to become the first front-line health care worker in the Lowcountry to get the newly approved Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.  The hospital's initial shipment arrived just two hours ago.

Champion sits still as her exposed upper arm is swabbed.  On the count of three, the onlookers lean in as the vaccine slowly plunges, into her skin.  Like a champion, she doesn't flinch.  There's a huge applause.

"I can't stop smiling about it," she gushes afterwards.

The mother of three says she had no concerns about getting the vaccine.  She wasn't worried about potential side effects.  She's seen first-hand what the disease can do and knows African Americans like herself are at an even greater risk.

"I want to make sure that I keep myself safe so that I don't come into the hospital and bring the virus to any critically ill child or their family members who want to be present at the bedside."

No sooner than Champion rolls down her sleeve, the vaccination seat is disinfected; wiped clean. The next front-line health care worker is prepped.

Vaccination Phases

Hospital officials say some 3,000 health care workers have volunteered and they expect to vaccinate as many as 700 on this day, even if  it means working well into the night. 

LPN Erika Hutzler administers Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at MUSC.  A second dose will be needed in 21 days.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio
LPN Erika Hutzler administers Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at MUSC.  A second dose will be needed in 21 days.

They say the vaccinations are going out in waves.  First is Phase One A which includes health care workers like Shemika Champion who have direct contact with patients.  MUSC hopes to have this group vaccinated by the end of December.

"That doesn't give us much time," says MUSC's chief quality officer Dr. Danielle Sheurer.  But she adds the hospital is well practiced at emergency planning given the Lowcountry's demanding hurricane seasons. 

Pfizer's first shipment, for example, was supposed to arrive 24 hours ago instead of two.  Yet health officials managed to maintain the day's vaccination schedule.

"It just seemed like another chapter in 2020 really," Dr. Sheurer says. 

MUSC like many other health care facilities hopes to turn the page on the Covid crisis. 

Officials say the next phase of vaccinations will go to health care providers who work within six feet of patients and then to those in other critical positions.  Dr. Sheurer says Pfizer's initial shipment included nearly 5,000 vaccines and she expects roughly the same each week: all under tight security. 

The Challenges

This vaccine, however, is finicky.  It must kept in ultra-frosty conditions.  We're talking minus 70 degrees Celsius.  That's colder than winter in Antarctica.  Fortunately, MUSC now has three freezers capable of such special storage.

Dr. Sheurer reminds people a second Pfizer vaccine is required in 21 days and there can be side effects like fever and body aches.  But she doesn't want that to discourage people.

"The only way we're going to get out of this pandemic is if we have enough people who have either had Covid or have the vaccine," Dr. Sheurer says.  "I would much rather get out of it with the vaccine."

Researchers aren't yet sure if the vaccine protects people from infection entirely or just the symptoms.  So, they are encouraging those who are vaccinated to still wear a mask.

Hope

As Dr. Sheurer wraps up her remarks about the more  than 200 potential vaccines in the works and the promise they might bring, the attention of the now scattering flock of journalists begins to turn to that hawk; the one on a nearby rooftop.

Hawk perched atop a roof near MUSC as the hospital offers its first vaccinations.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio
Hawk perched atop a roof near MUSC as the hospital offers its first vaccinations.

It peers down at the crowd as photographers try to capture its grace.  Native American folklore has it the presence of a hawk can symbolize protection and freedom.  Perhaps the majestic bird is just eyeing its dinner.

But protection and freedom are exactly what Shemika Champion and the team at MUSC are hoping for with this vaccine.

"I feel this is a new beginning," Champion says.  "This is the answer.  Getting vaccinated is the way that hopefully we have a fresh start."

A fresh start is what so many front-line health care workers say they need; to help them help others who are dying by the hundreds of thousands from COVID-19.