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Front-line workers at Upper Chesapeake Health receive first doses of COVID-19 vaccine

Forty front-line health care workers for Upper Chesapeake Health received their first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, the health system announced.

Vaccinating the front-line workers is the first step toward protecting other staff and patients in their care, according to Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of UCH.

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“We are thrilled to start the COVID vaccination efforts,” Sheldon said in a prepared statement. “Our team members have worked long and hard caring for our community during the pandemic.”

RN Tina Zimmerman gives Dr. Faheem Younus, an infectious disease specialist for Upper Chesapeake Health, his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday.
RN Tina Zimmerman gives Dr. Faheem Younus, an infectious disease specialist for Upper Chesapeake Health, his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday. (Courtesy Upper Chesapeake Health)

Two of the first UCH team members to receive the vaccine were Dr. Faheem Younus, an infectious disease specialist, and John Haacke, a critical care nurse at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

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“I received this vaccine because I want to lead by example,” said Younus, who is also UCH’s vice president of quality/chief quality officer.

“This is my place and these are my people. As an infectious disease physician, I have educated myself about the vaccine and I am convinced it is safe and efficacious,” he said. “I trust the science and I hope more people will do the same so we can crush this pandemic.”

Haacke, who works in the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center COVID Care Stabilization Unit, called the vaccine “the most obvious step toward ending this pandemic.”

“Part of the job that I enjoy is caring for people, but COVID has been tough to watch and tough to deal with,” he said.

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Upper Chesapeake Health, part of the University of Maryland Medical System, is in the process of allocating doses of the vaccine across both of Upper Chesapeake Medical Center and Harford Memorial Hospital. Additional doses of the vaccine are expected to be delivered later this week or sometime next week, according to a news release.

“For many months, we have been looking forward to the day when vaccines would be available to protect our healthcare workers and very soon for the community at large,” said Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of UMMS, in a statement.

UMMS received its first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday and distributed it among its 13-hospital system. The health system will continue to vaccinate front-line health care workers across the organization as vaccine supply becomes available, the release states.

As the first vaccine are distributed, Harford County’s key coronavirus metrics continue to trend in the wrong direction.

The county’s positivity rate increased for the fourth straight day to 8.4%, according to Maryland Department of Health data Wednesday, surpassing the state’s rate of 7.49%. Harford’s positivity rate — which measures the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests against the total number of tests administered — exceeded the state’s by nearly 2 percentage points most of November, when the county’s rate peaked at 9.88% on Nov. 19.

Harford’s seven-day moving average case rate has also increased throughout the month, reaching 36.52 cases per 100,000 people Wednesday. That’s down from 47.26 cases on Nov. 22, but up from 27.35 cases reported on Dec. 3.

The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed baselines of 5% positivity and 15 cases per 100,000 to consider transmission low enough to loosen restrictions.

Maryland’s initial allocation of the vaccine is largely reserved for health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes, but the state is also setting aside doses for local health departments to vaccinate first responders, said acting public health secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan said at the news conference Tuesday. Those could start within the next few weeks.

The state is getting an initial 155,000 doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Maryland officials expect to receive a total of 300,000 doses by the end of the month, but say the number depends on vaccine production.

Vaccines are being sent directly to hospitals. Every Maryland hospital will get an allocation of the initial 155,000 doses from the two companies, Chan said.

The most recent wave of COVID-19 across the state has been tough on medical workers and staff with concerns about the pressure and fatigue of the pandemic, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said.

“The vaccine won’t make them less tired, but it may take away some of that constant worry they may catch COVID,” he said.

In the coming weeks, the Maryland Department of Health plans to launch a dashboard detailing the number of vaccines that have been administered by county, age, race and other demographics.

Dr. David Marcozzi, COVID-19 incident commander for the University of Maryland Medical System, warned at Tuesday’s news conference that “things will get more difficult before they get easier.” He emphasized that family gatherings over the holidays should be limited to household contacts.

Glassman urged people to take personal responsibility, but said those “bound and determined” to get together for the holidays should take steps to mitigate exposure, such as wearing a mask and eating apart.

“Follow the guidelines and don’t gather in large groups if you can avoid it,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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