The mood at the Morgan County Health Department and the Parkway campus of Decatur Morgan Hospital was almost giddy Monday as those ages 75 and up presented their upper arms and grinned rather than grimaced as they received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine.
After 10 months of fear and isolation, this most vulnerable age group got a glimmer of hope that their lives will approach normal once they receive a second dose in 28 days and wait about two weeks after that to be confident the vaccine has reached 95% effectiveness. Most health care workers have received the vaccine, and Monday was the first day it became widely available to Morgan County residents ages 75 and up.
“I am just so grateful,” said Phyllis Schmidbauer, 77, one of about 120 to receive the vaccine Monday at Parkway. “I was just so glad when they called and said I was on the schedule.”
At the Parkway site, vaccines are being provided by appointment only. Appointments can be scheduled at decaturmorganhospital.net. Athens-Limestone Hospital has an online appointment form at athenslimestonehospital.com.
Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said the bulk of the vaccine doses are being given by appointment, but if daily supplies are adequate they will try to work in people who show up at the Morgan County Health Department if they are otherwise eligible. Appointments can be scheduled at all health departments through the ADPH hotline at 1-855-566-5333. The Morgan County vaccine clinic on U.S. 31 South is open 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.
Schmidbauer said she has felt "isolated and bored" since March, when the pandemic made its presence known in Alabama. She is at high risk for COVID-19 complications. Not only is she in an age group that experiences the most fatalities, she is on immunosuppressants due to a heart transplant she had 12 years ago.
“I was extremely anxious to get this vaccine, because my immune system was so suppressed,” she said.
Indeed, Monday was a highlight not only because she got the vaccine but because she sat for the 15-minute observation period after her shot just 6 feet from her 79-year-old friend Loretta Troup, who also was vaccinated, and they were able to speak with each other through masks.
“We haven’t been able to visit except to talk on the phone. Now we’re taking advantage of sitting here visiting 6 feet apart,” Schmidbauer said.
Troup said her concerns about the coronavirus have generally kept her shut in. She rarely leaves her home except to make 7 a.m. runs to Publix.
“I’m the first one in the door and first one to check out, so that’s my outing. I’m very careful to hopefully not get the COVID,” she said.
While Troup knows she is more than a month from the vaccine providing maximum protection and will largely remain home until then, she’s counting the days.
“I’m hoping spring can get here and I can sit with friends in the sun and we don’t have to worry anymore,” she said.
Avonne Shelton, 77, was vaccinated Monday at Parkway along with her husband, and she said the shot was painless. Because she works part time and has been able to play golf with her husband, she has felt less confined than many in her age group.
"But once I’m fully vaccinated, I guess ‘freedom’ is the word I want to use," she said. "When I get my other vaccine dose I’ll feel safer about doing the things I’m doing now."
Smith, who was at the Morgan County Health Department on Monday as vaccines were administered, said she was delighted at the reception.
“The most exciting part of this has been to see the smiles and the hope on the faces of people who have gotten their vaccine,” Smith said. “We have so many, particularly those who are 75 and over, who have been so isolated — away from family, living in fear. The hope they seem to get even by just getting their first dose has been extremely rewarding.”
She said she expected to administer 300 doses by day’s end Monday and hoped another shipment of vaccine doses would come in from the state today.
“The biggest issue is the availability of vaccine and the availability of staff to be able to administer the vaccine,” she said.
Payless Pharmacy also has received vaccine doses, she said, and she anticipates that several other providers will be authorized to administer the vaccine soon.
Kelli Powers, CEO of Decatur Morgan Hospital, said beginning vaccinations of those 75 and over is a major milestone.
“The majority of our deaths and really sick patients are over 75. I think if we can get all of these people vaccinated, my glimmer of hope is that we see fewer people coming into the hospital,” she said. “I’m hoping we’ll start flattening the curve. I want to get as many people as we can vaccinated.”
She also hopes monoclonal antibody infusions, available on an outpatient basis for those who test positive for the virus, will begin to reduce hospitalizations.
Marie Palmer, director of hospital-based providers at Decatur Morgan Hospital and head of the vaccine clinic at Parkway, said she got great satisfaction watching the vaccine go into arms.
She also runs the fever clinic at Parkway, where COVID-19 testing takes place, and the emergency medicine and hospital medicine provider services at Decatur Morgan, giving her a perspective on the devastation the disease has wrought and the hope that the vaccine brings.
She watched as more and more people came to the drive-thru testing site beginning late summer exhibiting symptoms.
“It was almost overwhelming seeing so many people had to come in and be tested, and the number of positives we were having to call back was really high,” she said. “Hopefully that balance will start to shift to where, as we start to vaccinate the public, the fever clinic isn’t going to see that huge number of people needing to be tested.”
The providers at the hospital have struggled to keep up with a disease that has killed at least 113 Morgan County residents. Inpatient COVID-19 cases lulled somewhat last week but are climbing again. The hospital had 92 confirmed or presumed COVID-19 patients Monday. A dozen were in intensive care, including 11 on ventilators.
“My providers in the ER and my providers in the hospital service have been completely overwhelmed with these patients, dealing with the ICU being full and all those really, really sick patients,” Palmer said. “It’s kind of a unique vantage point because I get to see the inpatient side of it as well as the vaccination side of it. Hopefully we’ll be able to see those numbers on the inpatient side of it fall as well.”
Palmer said she expects the Parkway clinic will administer 1,050 initial doses of the vaccine this week. She said no one had an adverse reaction to the vaccine Monday.
Consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ADPH, the Huntsville Hospital Health System, which includes Decatur Morgan and Athens-Limestone hospitals, is not holding a second dose in reserve for those who have received their first dose.
Powers said she understands the reasoning behind the decision — a single dose provides some protection — but it worries her.
“I am concerned about the second doses,” she said, and she’s communicated an inquiry to ADPH as to whether there can be statewide sharing of vaccines to ensure the second dose is available. “I want to make sure everybody gets their second dose, but at the same time I want to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
There are financial repercussions to Decatur Morgan’s administration of vaccines that Powers said remain in limbo.
“Right now we’re not billing for it. Huntsville has made the decision for right now that we’re not going to bill insurance," she said, although insurance information is being collected.
The vaccines and supplies are free to the hospital, but other costs are significant.
“The administration and the staff, just setting up that clinic at Parkway is really expensive. I don’t want to charge self-pay people, but if insurance is going to pay for it, I would like to bill them. I’m not sure financially how it will end up,” said Powers, who was chief financial officer of Huntsville Hospital before starting at Decatur Morgan.
She has decided that the urgency of expediting vaccinations must overwhelm money issues.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got to do it. I’m a financial person so it gives me a little pause, but when your heart and your head tell you it’s the thing you need to do, then you’re going to figure out how to do it,” she said. “It’s the best thing for Decatur and Morgan County to get as many people vaccinated as fast as we can.”