Part one: Hawkins County distributes over 300 vaccines

“Christmas came early for me today,” Mary Ellen Elkins told the Review just moments after receiving her first dose of the brand-new, COVID-19 vaccine—a vaccine for which she had waited in line over three hours.

Elkins is the business manager of U-Save Pharmacy in Rogersville, and she told the Review that she was “thrilled” to receive the vaccine.

“I am thrilled to be a part of this and to show Rogersville and Hawkins County that they can be confident in receiving the vaccine and doing the right thing for our community,” she said.

Though other healthcare facilities within the county have already received and begun distributing their allotted vaccines, the vaccines distributed at the Dec. 23 drive-thru event—of which Elkins was a part—were the very first received by the Hawkins County Health Departments.

Church Hill and Rogersville Health Department Director Shaun Street told the Review that the event attracted more participation than he initially expected, with over 300 people.

“It’s overwhelming, but it’s heart-warming to see this many people interested,” Street said. “You never know how much interest there is in the community for folks who either want the vaccine or don’t care for it. It’s very exciting for myself and the health department staff to feel like we’re truly being part of something that’s historical. This is at the core of public health. This is what we do as far as promoting vaccines each and every day.”

The county’s health department is set to receive a total of 600 vaccines in the first two initial shipments, but Street said on Dec. 23 that those vaccines are still coming into the county, as Moderna only began shipping out vaccines the weekend prior.

Each county receives a different allotment of vaccines based on its population. The Dec. 23 event distributed the 300 that the Hawkins County Health Departments received so far.

Over 300 people turn out to receive their first vaccine

Though the distribution only took place from 1 to 6 p.m., Health Department employees began setting up the site at around 11 a.m. that morning and worked until the event ended at 6 p.m.

“Statewide, the Commissioner of Health wanted all the vaccines to go out as quickly as possible, so w’re just going to keep providing the vaccine until we run out,” Street said on Dec. 23.

However, several people did have to be turned away when the last of the 300 vaccines was given.

The tents under which the vaccines were administered were set up near the back of an empty parking lot within the Phipps Bend Industrial Park. Cars were lined up in a snaking format in order to fit as many as possible.

Each person who received the vaccine was asked to remain in a designated parking lot for 15 minutes afterwards to ensure that he or she had no adverse reactions. Ambulances and emergency crews were also strategically placed in this lot to care for anyone in need.

When the Review spoke with Street around three hours into the event, no recipient had experienced an adverse reaction.

Street explained that common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are “comparable to that of other vaccines” and consist of redness and tenderness at the injection site, aching joints and low fever.

Distributing the vaccine

The Tennessee Department of Health has created a 46-page plan specifically regulating the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. This plan breaks the state population into four phases, which determine the order in which Tennesseans will receive the vaccine.

The Dec. 23 distribution was specifically for Hawkins Countians who fell into phase 1a1 and 1a2, or first responders and healthcare workers with direct patient exposure.

“We have made first responders, law enforcement and healthcare workers our priority,” Street said. “Initially, we did have a registration system in process for the folks in phase 1a1. They had an opportunity to register for the vaccine for today’s event. However, State Commissioner of Health [Lisa] Piercey wanted to make sure that all vaccines were given out based on the two shipments we were receiving this week, so we have expanded into phase 1a2, which is other healthcare workers.”

Those who fell into phases 1a1 were already identified prior to the Dec. 23 event. However, Street noted that, since Piercey expanded the eligibility into Phase 1a2 just hours before the Dec. 23 event, event workers were actually registering people on-site.

The next phase is 1b, which is adults primarily age 65 and older, who have at least two pre-existing, chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, COPD and heart disease.

Event workers who were guiding cars through the line towards the vaccine tents made sure to push all those in phase 1a1 towards the beginning of the line. Later in the line, some Hawkins Countians who fell into phase 1b were able to receive their vaccine.

For those who fall into later phases, Street explained that, at this time, TDH officials are not sure of the exact timeline when they might be able to receive a vaccine.

“Our opportunity to vaccinate the community is truly dependent upon how quickly we get the vaccine,” he said. “For those folks who fall into the ‘general population’ categories…they will more than likely fall into phase three and four. It could be late spring or early summer before we get into those.”

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are a two-dose vaccine, so all of the participants who received their first dose on Dec. 23 will need to come back to a TDH location in 26 to 30 days to receive their second dose.

TDH has received the Moderna vaccines, and Street explained that the Pfizer vaccines, which were the first vaccines to be approved and distributed, were sent to healthcare facilities since they must be stored at extremely low temperatures.

Street also noted that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are not interchangeable, so vaccinated persons must receive both dose one and two from the same manufacturer.

Part two: Hawkins Countians react to receiving the vaccine

“Christmas came early”

As aforementioned, Elkins told the Review that she was thrilled when she received an email saying that pharmacists would be eligible for the Dec. 23 event.

“Christmas came early for me today,” Elkins said. “When I got the email saying that the state had been instructed to give out the last doses of the vaccines that they had, we registered as many employees as we could as quickly as we could.”

She explained that she almost didn’t believe it when she heard about the drive-thru event.

“I came here honestly just to see if it was true, and it was,” she said.

Elkins has worked for U-Save for 15 years, but she said receiving the vaccine and being able to sign up other employees to receive it was one of her “biggest accomplishments” as a pharmacy employee.

She also said she wasn’t nervous to receive it, as she had followed news of the vaccine trials very closely.

“I’ve heard a lot about it on the news, I’ve done my own research, I have lots of friends in healthcare—some are physicians who have already taken the vaccine—so I was fully confident that this was the right thing for me,” she said.

Like many others with whom the Review spoke, Elkins said the injection was rather painless.

“I feel like the flu shot hurts more going in than this one did,” she said. “I didn’t even feel anything with this one. The worst part of this one was that the band-aid got stuck to the hairs on my arm!”

She added with a laugh, “I am thrilled to get the vaccine—especially the Moderna one, because that’s the one Dolly Parton funded.”

She said she will, however, continue to wear a mask even after receiving the vaccine.

“I’m going to keep everything the same in the coming months—keep washing my hands and wearing a mask,” she added. “Honestly, I’m going to pretend like I don’t have this vaccine until I get my second dose. But, it does give me a much brighter outlook. I’m ready for 2020 to come to a close and for 2021 to bring all the good things.”

“I just wanted a vaccine—it didn’t matter which kind”

Both Kitty and Clay Smith, told the Review that they “felt great” after receiving the shot and called the process “painless.”

“I’m very happy to get it,” said Kitty, who is a retired nurse.

The Smiths said they heard about the Dec. 23 distribution from their daughter-in-law, who is a Hawkins County teacher.

“She called us this morning, because she knew, with our age, we needed to get a vaccine,” Kitty added.

The Smith’s son actually works for Pfizer and has been working on the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We called him when we were in line to get the vaccine, and he knew we were getting the Moderna,” Kitty said. “He said, ‘if you can get it, get it.’”

“If it’s good enough for Dr. Fauci, it’s good enough for me,” said Clay, who retired as a sales manager for Eastman Chemical Company.”

As far as how having the vaccine will impact the way the Smiths view the future, Clay told the Review, “I don’t think I can answer that until I have the second [dose.]”

“It’s almost like it’s a relief”

Rogersville/Hawkins County Chamber of Commerce Director Nancy Barker told the Review that she had been waiting in line for about three hours before she finally received the vaccine.

“I think it’s well worth the wait,” she said. “It’s for the safety of ourselves and the community.”

“It didn’t hurt at all-I couldn’t really even feel it,” said Brenda Brooks, who was in the line with Barker to receive the vaccine.

When asked to compare the feeling of a COVID-19 vaccine to a flu vaccine, Barker told the Review that she couldn’t tell any difference between the two.

“I actually think the flu shot was a little bit worse,” Brooks said.

“I’m just so glad that the vaccine finally got here and that our community can take part in it,” Barker said. “I just hope we can put this to rest and that this vaccine will be what we need to make sure that we’re safe. It’s great to be part of a historic event, but I hope 2020 will be over on Dec. 31 and we can get back to normal life again.”

Both Brooks and Barker said that they were not nervous about receiving the brand-new vaccine.

“It’s almost like it’s a relief,” Barker said.

She also advocated for anyone who is able to receive the vaccine to do so.

“Until we get everyone vaccinated and get a handle on this, we’re never going to be able to get back to the life we’ve been used to living,” she said. “If you’re healthy and can take the shot, I think you need to try and take it.”

”It didn’t even hurt”

Earl Mullins, a Mount Carmel resident who retired from the Kingsport Press, told the Review that he was initially hesitant to receive the vaccine.

“I thought that maybe the first of it was experimental,” he said. “My wife is a nurse, and she didn’t much want me to do it, but I came on because I definitely don’t want COVID.”

He said it was “hearing about so many people dying from it (COVID)” that made him eventually choose to receive the vaccine. His wife, however, chose not to do so.

Mullins, along with several other vaccine recipients with whom the Review spoke, said he heard about the Dec. 23 event when the Mount Carmel Senior Center Director gave him a call. He also said he felt “fine” after receiving it and noted with a laugh, “it didn’t even hurt!”

“I figured that it would sting or burn or something, but it didn’t,” he said.

As far as how receiving the vaccine had changed his outlook on the future, Mullins said, “I hope it will keep me from having to wear that old mask, but I don’t know. I’ll have to wait and see.”

“I’ve been looking forward to this”

“I feel great,” Brenda Carroll told the Review just moments after she received her vaccine. “I’ve been looking forward to this. It was very easy and [the event] seems very organized.”

Carroll, who is a retired assistant principal, said she heard about the event from some friends. She, too, had been waiting in line for a little over three hours before she finally received her vaccine.

“I have patience,” she said with a laugh. “It was worth the wait. It’s sad that we have to have this (vaccine), but I feel good about it,” she said. “I am happy to be a part of what scientists have created for us.”

In regard to how the vaccine had changed her outlook on the future, Carroll said, “I understand that we will still wear our masks—that is to protect others. I don’t know that it will change anything too much except that I won’t be as afraid of getting sick…so that’s a relief. At first, I thought that, if you got the vaccine, you didn’t have to wear the mask anymore. I thought ‘oh, yay!’” Then, I read that you do still need to wear it. You still have to look after other people, and I will do that by wearing my mask.”

So close, yet so far

Nellie and Larry Taylor told the Review that they were “excited” to receive the vaccine.

They, too, heard about the event through the Mount Carmel Senior Center Director.

“We’re very fortunate and very thankful,” said Larry, who retired from Kingsport Press.

Both told the Review that they were not nervous to receive the brand-new vaccine.

“We’ve had vaccines all our lives,” said Nellie, who is a retired teacher. “We’ve watched the news, we’ve read everything we can, and we feel like the scientists know what is best.”

She added, “Now that I have the vaccine, we still have to be careful for a while, but hopefully, sooner, we’ll be able to do things normally. This is just the first step towards getting past this.”

When the Review spoke with the Taylors, Nellie had just received her vaccine and Larry was waiting to find out if he would be able to receive his vaccine or not, as he had received a shingles vaccine not long before Dec. 23.

Like many others who spoke with the Review, the couple had waited in the line for over three hours to reach the vaccine tent.

Unfortunately, Street later told the Review that Larry was unable to receive the vaccine, as not enough time had passed since his shingles vaccine. After waiting for over three hours, Larry had to drive away empty-handed. However, Street explained that Larry will be notified when the next vaccine distribution will take place and will be registered for that event.

“We’ve trained for this for years…”

Sharon Phipps, who is a public health educator for the Hawkins County Health Department, told the Review, “we’ve trained for this for years, but you don’t ever plan on having to have it.”

She noted that the drive-thru event went smoothly and suspected the triage of COVID-19 drive-thru testing had prepared the employees for the vaccination event.

“It’s been kind-of overwhelming to be part of this,” Phipps said. “This is history in the making. As much as we’ve prepared, I don’t think you could ever prepare for the overwhelming response we have had or all of the positive comments we’ve had from our community.”

Though Phipps hadn’t received her vaccine yet when she spoke with the Review, she noted that she was scheduled to receive it at the end of her shift.

“I am excited to take it to show my children and grandchildren that it is okay to take it,” she said. “I have always been a proponent of vaccines. As long as they can make a vaccine that can prevent me from getting sick or some of the side effects, I am the first one to take it. I encourage that. Take responsibility for your health.”

Street added, “I’m confident that, when we look back on our tenure as Health Department employees, when we look back on 2020, we will not forget the work that we were able to complete.”