COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic Workers Go Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

In early 2020, COVID-19 preparation became a primary focus at Southeast Georgia Health System as departments representing all aspects of hospital operations and patient care began working together to develop plans to safely care for COVID-19 patients, as well as keep non-COVID-19 patients and team members from being exposed to the virus. After months of caring for extremely ill patients, the exhausted health care workers were finally able to experience a glimmer of hope that the deadly pandemic would soon end with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines. With vaccines in hand, the next step was to determine the best way get people vaccinated.

“We had to quickly mobilize a clinic that didn’t exist,” recalls Director of Physician Practices, Adam Brown, CMPE. Initially, that job fell to Sharon Zawislak, the Health System’s director of Human Resources. With vaccines in short supply, federal and local governments prioritized health care workers for vaccination. Zawislak coordinated an internal Vaccine Clinic for the Health System to ensure all team members had the opportunity to get vaccinated. When Governor Kemp extended COVID-19 vaccinations to the public, the Health System leadership team met to strategize on how best to inoculate eligible individuals as quickly as possible. Brown joined Zawislak to transform the Vaccine Clinic for public distribution.

“The operational hours were intense, but getting the clinic up and running in the first place was even more difficult,” says Zawislak. “It takes about 16-20 team members to run the clinic each day. Thankfully over 50 team members signed up to help in the clinics, in addition to their regular workload.”

Tabitha Hill, LPN, remembers what it was like in the early days of the COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic at Southeast Georgia Health System. “Shifts began at 6:30 a.m. One of us would get the vaccines from the hospital pharmacy, and bring them to the clinic. We had to ensure that we had enough vaccines for everyone scheduled each day, had to store the vaccines properly, and use them within two hours. We had to manage all that and run the clinic from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week.” Hill is a clinical team coordinator for Southeast Georgia Physician Associates–Endocrinology & Diabetes, and one of the vaccine clinic nurses.

An Overwhelming Task

When you embark on a seemingly complex issue with a simplistic objective, you can solve it. The goal was to get shots in arms.

“Initially, the planning for such a large clinic was overwhelming. We knew this was something we had to do for our community, so we jumped in and began planning. It proved to be quite the task,” Zawislak says. Besides supply shortages, Zawislak says finding a space large enough to accommodate a massive public vaccination effort was one of the biggest challenges the team faced.

Brown echoes those thoughts. “Strategizing the set up was an overwhelming process. There was more demand than supply. People were knocking on our doors, desperate for the COVID-19 vaccine.” By leaning in, Brown says that he and his team members focused on a common goal. “Do the most good in the shortest amount of time.”

According to Angelia Ricker, R.N., Team Member Health, Health System leaders made the task easier. “They did an exceptional job,” she explains. Much of the credit, according to Zawislak and Brown, goes to the man at the top. “Our leadership team was fantastic to work with. Our President and CEO Mike Scherneck led the charge to help end this pandemic by making sure everyone wanting to be vaccinated was able to do so as quickly as possible.” Brown agrees, describing Scherneck as the “driving force” behind the effort and providing the team with everything they needed to keep the clinic running smoothly. This level of support fostered the team’s morale as they labored long hours and weekends. “Multiple employees have worked every weekend since the clinic opened,” says Hill.

Shortly after vaccinating health care workers, the team started vaccinating the Health System’s most vulnerable patients. “We started with pulmonology, cardiac and oncology patients,” Brown explains. As supplies replenished and state requirements eased, the team administered more shots. “We have given over 36,700 vaccinations since opening to the public in January 2021,” says Brown.

Memorable Moments

Hill and Ricker recall two memorable patient interactions. “A man’s 102nd birthday was coming up. He wanted to get vaccinated and wanted everyone in his family vaccinated so they could celebrate with him,” Hill says. Ricker recounts another special moment. “Everyone has been extremely appreciative, but I would say that a 104-year-old patient stands out the most. She was so grateful.”

As if juggling supply and demand weren’t enough, the March winter storm in Texas threw a weather wrench in clinic operations. “We had timed everything perfectly to have enough supplies, then the storm delayed vaccine shipments. We spent a lot of sleepless nights, trying to figure out a solution. We ended up rescheduling 700 people and giving 1,300 vaccinations in one day to make up for that gap,” Brown says.

Operational headaches and sleep deprivation aside, the Vaccine Clinic heroes appreciate the role they played in this historic effort. Twenty years from now, what stories will they tell their grandchildren? “I would tell them our team came together to help our community get vaccinated, and as a result our Health System played an important role in ending this pandemic. I would also tell them what an honor it was to work with such a great team and organization,” Zawislak says.

From Brown’s perspective, “Rarely do you experience patient interactions where people are so grateful. The clinic was the most rewarding and impactful thing I’ve ever been involved with. We owe a debt of gratitude to every single person who helped with this effort because they went above and beyond the call of duty.”

As nurses battling the pandemic one COVID-19 shot at a time, Hill and Ricker encourage the public to get vaccinated. “The sooner everyone is vaccinated, the sooner we can return to a somewhat normal life,” Ricker says.

For their role in combating a historic health crisis, these four individuals, and all those who helped make the Vaccine Clinics happen, are truly frontline heroes.

Southeast Georgia Health System is offering COVID-19 vaccines for all individuals age 16 and older. Appointments are preferred, but walk-ins are accepted. To learn more or to make an appointment, visit sghs.org/covid19-vaccine.

Today’s Frontline Heroes is sponsored by Southeast Georgia Health System. Visit their website at sghs.org.

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