COVID-19 vaccinations have been highly sought after since the Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech version of the vaccine in late 2020. High-risk and older individuals were given priority for the first doses of the vaccine in South Carolina, but stories of canceled appointments and limited availability seemed to dominate the media landscape early this year.
One organization, however, quickly pivoted operations to effectively manage the distribution of the vaccine quickly to its eligible patients – the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in downtown Charleston. Realizing the immediacy of need and understanding the heavy emotional toll a year of safety protocols, distancing from family and friends and worrying over potential infection had taken on its veterans, VA leadership and staff pushed aside all barriers to get the process down to a science.
“We recognized that there was a large emotional component to this vaccine,” said Dr. Robert Glass, acting chief of primary care for the Charleston VA. “We wanted to do right by people, and that meant being sure we had the vaccine before we scheduled appointments. The last thing we would want would be to cancel a vaccination for someone who was really invested in getting it.”
Glass, an integral member of the team handling the distribution protocols at the VA, said they drew on the Department of Defense experience of many of the staff members who had been involved in maximum vaccination campaigns with the agency to develop a system for safely administering the shot to multiple patients at once.
“We started out distributing the vaccine in our main facility downtown, but we quickly realized that we needed a lot more space to move people through quickly, especially with the need to social distance,” Glass explained.
That’s when the team moved their Charleston vaccine clinic to the newly constructed North Charleston VA Outpatient Clinic at 6450 Rivers Ave. in North Charleston. The clinic isn’t scheduled to officially open until the summer of 2021, but the hospital had received its certificate of occupancy and capitalized on the availability of the large, open lobby of the building, centralized location and ample parking to create a dedicated COVID-19 distribution operation.
“Week by week, we get a supply report of how much of each vaccine we will be receiving,” Glass said. “From there, we proactively reach out to the eligible segment of veterans by phone or text and encourage them to call to book an appointment. Once they arrive at the clinic, we seat them in distanced sections where they fill out their paperwork. When a block is full, a nurse will administer the vaccine to each of the patients, and then they will remain seated for a 15-minute observation in case of a reaction. When the timer goes off, all the patients are free to go and already have their follow-up appointment scheduled for the second dose, in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna versions. The block system is the most efficient way we have found for managing the administration of the vaccine to large groups of up to 25 people.”
The Charleston VA also holds similar clinics at several of its remote outpatient locations, including those in Myrtle Beach and Beaufort in South Carolina and Savannah and Hinesville in Georgia, utilizing the same block process to great success. To date, the Charleston VA has administered more than 58,000 individual shots, which includes dose one and two of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and more than 350 doses of the recently released one-shot Johnson & Johnson Janssen version.
“We’ve really had wonderful feedback from our veterans,” said Glass. “We’ve vaccinated World War II veterans who are in their 100s, and we’ve seen our fair share of tears because people say they’re able to get their lives back in small ways. People are grateful, and we’ve made the process easy to help alleviate some of the worry.”
For the team at the VA, getting it right when it comes to vaccine distribution was critical and a way to give back to the veterans they serve.
“This is a once-in-lifetime occurrence – a once-in-a-generation health event – and for us, this is why we are here,” Glass said. “This is our calling, and our team has really demonstrated such dedication and perseverance throughout this process. We’ve held Saturday clinics and never had one of them be short-staffed. Everyone has stepped up and really answered the call for our veterans.”
Veterans of all ages, their spouses and caregivers can schedule a vaccine appointment at the VA by calling 843-789-6900 or visiting www.charleston.va.gov.