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Harford’s first responders, health care workers get first shots during health department COVID-19 vaccine clinic

Angelina Colaianni had been a bit nervous about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but after conducting research, she felt comfortable by the time she got the first of two required shots during a clinic for first responders and health care workers Monday.

Colaianni, who works as a dental hygienist in Bel Air, sat on a chair in a Patterson Mill Middle-High School hallway with others who received the vaccine — patients had to remain at the school at least 15 minutes after getting their shot to ensure they did not have an allergic reaction to it.

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“I just know that, because I am around so many people every day, that I need to do it for myself and my patients,” she said of getting vaccinated, noting that she felt “totally fine” after her shot.

The clinic, which is scheduled to happen throughout the week, is being managed by the Harford County Health Department. The vaccines are offered at no cost to the patient.

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It is open only to first responders and health care workers in the state’s Phase 1A vaccine priority group. Recipients must have been invited to the clinic and filled out a consent form online before they arrived to get their shots, according to Lisa Swank, emergency preparedness coordinator for the health department.

Those eligible include firefighters, EMS personnel, law enforcement officers, emergency management staff and health care providers such as physicians, dentists and those who work in their practices. Swank stressed that officials sent invitations to potential recipients based on information in health department records — any providers who did not receive an invite can contact the agency at 410-838-1500.

Colaianni, the dental hygienist, said her whole family is slated to have the vaccine by the end of this week, as they all are part of the 1A priority group. Her father is a firefighter, her mother is a dental hygienist and her sister, who received her first shot Christmas Eve, is a hospital-based ultrasound technician.

“We’re all in the health care field,” she said.

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Erica Gutshall is a nurse practitioner with Susquehanna OB/GYN and Nurse Midwifery, which is affiliated with University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health. She said she is “super excited” to get her first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It makes you feel even more comfortable around your patients,” said Gutshall, who works with older adults, pregnant mothers, women who have recently delivered babies as well as the infants themselves.

She said she will “absolutely” continue to practice COVID-19 safety protocols, such as wearing personal protective equipment, while at work even after completing the vaccine process.

Dr. Michael Noorani, a Bel Air orthodontist, participated in the clinic with two members of his office staff.

“I’m so excited — I wanted to do it as quickly as possible,” said one staffer, Jessica Jakubowski.

Jakubowski works at the front desk, interacting with patients. She and her colleagues have a number of COVID safety protocols for patients, such as asking them questions about their health status and giving hand sanitizer.

She noted that, in a dental practice, patients must remove their masks and “there’s no way around it, which is why it’s really important for people to get vaccinated.”

“Just excitement, if you can count that as a side effect,” Jakubowski said when asked if she was feeling any impacts after getting her shot.

Noorani said it will be helpful for him and his staff to get vaccinated but noted people should still take other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — he said members of his family are not yet vaccinated.

“You still have to take the same precautions that you’re taking right now, until they’re vaccinated and the grandparents are vaccinated, so it’s going to be a while,” he said.

Vaccine specs

The clinic participants are receiving the vaccine manufactured by pharmaceutical company Moderna, which received emergency use approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in mid-December. It is one of two coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S., along with that made by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Swank said recipients will get two shots of the Moderna vaccine 28 days, or four weeks, apart, which ensures they have “full protection” from COVID-19.

“You still need that second dose to be fully vaccinated,” she said.

The Moderna vaccine has some advantages for health officials, compared to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, as the former does not need to be stored in a specialize sub-zero freezer to preserve it, but rather a “regular vaccine freezer.” The Pfizer vaccine also must be mixed with a “diluent” solution before it is administered, which is not the case for Moderna, according to Swank.

The timeline between shots for the Pfizer vaccine is shorter, though, with a 21-day window for Pfizer compared to 28 days for Moderna.

“It’s much easier to administer,” Swank said of the Moderna vaccine.

Swank also discussed the critical role record-keeping will play in distributing the vaccine. Recipients must fill out the online consent form before they visit the clinic, and they receive a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination record card during the clinic to track the dates and locations of their first and second shots.

Participants also can sign up for the CDC’s v-safe smartphone tool to record any side effects from the vaccine. Signing up is optional, but agency officials strongly recommend that recipients do so, Swank noted.

The information provided by those who register for a vaccine clinic and fill out the online consent form will be entered into PrepMod, a software system used by the state of Maryland to track the COVID-19 immunization process.

“We can see each record of who got it, and when they got it and where they got it,” Swank said.

The current clinic for Harford County is scheduled for Monday through Friday of this week and will continue after that.

“As long as we have the vaccine, we will continue to offer it to anybody who wants it — according to the state priority guidelines,” Swank said.

Maryland is currently administering vaccines to people in the 1A priority group, including health care workers, first responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, based on the “initial extremely short supply of the vaccine,” according to the state’s covidLINK website.

The next priority group, 1B, includes people who face “significantly higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness,” followed by Group 2. That group includes those who work in “critical, essential infrastructure roles,” as well as people who are at “moderately higher” risk of a severe case of COVID-19. The third and final priority group covers Maryland’s general population.

Swank could not give a concrete timeline as to when the vaccine will be available to larger groups of people. She noted that it will take time to fully vaccinate the initial groups, citing the need to give two shots several weeks apart.

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The health department will advertise upcoming vaccine clinics, which are slated to happen in different parts of Harford County. Swank encouraged people to visit the health department’s website for more information, and she stressed the need to register for clinics ahead of time.

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“We will continue to have clinics throughout the many months ahead,” she said. “There no ending [date], it’s just continuing to provide the vaccine as directed by the state.”

‘History in the making’

Swank praised those who have supported this week’s clinic, including Harford County Public Schools for providing the space and health department staff who served as the “backbone” of the operation by checking people in, conducting temperature screenings at the main entrance and handling their paperwork.

She also thanked those who gave the injections, such as health department staff and many HCPS school nurses. Patients sat at tables in the school cafeteria as a nurse gave the shot in the deltoid muscle of the upper arm.

One school nurse was Dawn Higinbothom, of Fallston High School. She said those involved in the clinic are “really being a major part of history in the making, to help combat this virus.”

“People have been very positive and happy to be getting it,” she said.

Higinbothom described administering the vaccine as a way for her and her colleagues to give back to the community, noting that Harford County EMS personnel often come to schools when needed for a medical emergency.

“Often times, we are involved with EMS and they are helping us, and now it’s our turn to help them,” as first responders “are really on the front lines of this virus,” she said.

Higinbothom said helping students is the primary role for school nurses, “but we are all about community and public health.”

Jenn Chenworth, a spokesperson for the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association, described the vaccine as “another layer of protection for our providers in public safety to keep them safe and healthy.”

She expressed thanks in an email Monday evening to the health department, the county’s Department of Emergency Services and the fire and EMS association’s executive board for their support of first responders and for working with them to develop a “very concentrated, precise, and regimented plan” to provide the vaccine to first responders who opt to get it.

Another Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association spokesperson previously told The Aegis that 469 members expressed interest in being vaccinated, and 128 of those individuals received appointments to get their first dose this week.

Firefighters and EMS personnel have been wearing extra protective gear since the start of the pandemic. Chenworth called that gear “the first line of defense in this fight, along with good hygiene and keeping distance from others.”

“The vaccine is a welcomed additional layer of defense in the fight of COVID-19, not only giving our providers an additional layer of protection, but also their family members, and our community,” she stated. “We are hopeful this will be the start of an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, and protect those that risk their lives daily on the front line.”

Havre de Grace Police Department Capt. Jon Krass also extended “a special thanks” to the health department for putting on the clinic. Police officers and department staff will be getting vaccines on a voluntary basis this week, Krass said during a City Council meeting Monday evening.

“I think it goes a long way to give them an opportunity, if they wanted, to take advantage of that [clinic], and so we appreciate them reaching out to us and making that available to our employees,” he said of health officials.

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