FLORENCE, S.C. — The vaccinators at McLeod Health have a message for residents anxious to get the COVID-19 vaccine — be patient.
The hospital system is putting vaccines into arms as quickly as it can get doses of the vaccine, said Donna Isgett, chief operating officer of McLeod Health and chairwoman of the South Carolina Hospital Association board.
Getting doses is the holdup, she said.
"We've administered what we've been given. We're doing great," said Lesli McGee, who is serving as incident commander for delivering vaccines at the hospital. "We're getting all the second doses we're asking for. If I have given you your first shot I have to make sure I have the second shot."
"The first doses is where we're waiting on additional allocation from the state. I can tell you we don't get the full amount we request," McGee said.
"We have more people who want doses in that 1a group, particularly as we open up to patients, than we are receiving," McGee said. "Our plan is to issue everything we get and keep asking until we have pushed the envelope in every population until everyone who wants it gets it."
"I've been very assertive about 'just send me some more vaccine,'" Isgett said. "I want to get it. I'm where Lesli is. McLeod Health wants to see it to everybody who would benefit."
And it's not just the residents in phase 1a 70-and-older who are anxiously awaiting their vaccines.
There are still have numerous EMS workers in Cheraw and Bennettsville who haven't had a vaccine because McLeod hasn't been able to get a consistent supply.
"We're pushing hard for vaccine," Isgett said. "We asked for 10,000 doses this week; we believed we could deliver 10,000 doses this week. The governor said put them on your shelf, take them off and put them into arms. We ended up getting 3,900 second doses," Isgett said.
"We got 1,950 first doses and that includes patients, first responders, McLeod employees," McGee said.
The current expectations on vaccines may not be reasonable, McGee said.
"We are a society that wants things when we want them and being so instantaneous many times you get it," McGee said. "It makes it hard to be patient when you have something this big to roll out across the state."
When it comes to the vaccine and expectations, McGee said, the big numbers that are out there aren't nearly as big as they seem.
"The state's going to get 800,000 doses; that means that 400,000 people and 200,000 of those went to CVS and Walgreen's," she said.
The remainder of the doses are then passed out to the state's hospitals to administer while CVS and Walgreen's use theirs to vaccinate long-term care facility residents.
And all doses are not the same -- at least from an accounting and healthcare standpoint. First doses and second doses are treated differently.
"We're getting all the second doses we're asking for," McGee said. "If I have given you your first shot I have to make sure I have the second shot.
"The first doses are where we're waiting on additional allocation from the state. I can tell you we don't get the full amount we request," McGee said.
"I think everybody is doing their part," McGee said of the distribution effort so far. "I think everybody has to dig in and request as much as we can."
There is a plan
Tuesday a steady flow of people worked their way through the lobby at McLeod Plaza where they would go through intake in one small meeting room before they headed to a larger meeting room where they'd get the vaccine in one area and spend 15 minutes sitting in another area before departing.
The line Tuesday at lunch was never longer than one or two people.
"I do have a plan," McGee said of getting people vaccinated.
"We have those everywhere," McGee said of the Plaza vaccine clinic. "That's the mode. Our team has those setup on all the campuses. We are not struggling to get the vaccine we're allocated out to the population that we're in right now, which is 1a."
And that success is achieved with an all-hands-on-deck approach.
"We pulled every non-direct-patient-care nurse who had the ability to give shots and pulled them into this work," Isgett said. "People who were doing important work but we prioritized to pull them in. We have our former administrator of McLeod Regional in there giving shots. We have our administrator of McLeod Darlington giving shots. I volunteered to give shots. I'm a nurse by background and I can still give shots."
And the program, designed by McGee and Octavia Williams Blake, is scalable.
While the hospital asked for 10,000 doses to deploy in one week, Isgett said with a bit more staff 20,000 a week is just as doable.
"We absolutely could if we could get our hands on vaccines," Isgett said.
Hospitals on front line
"He must have used the words 'go to your hospital' 15 times," Isgett said of Gov. Henry McMaster's latest press conference on the virus.
And it has been that way from the start of the pandemic.
Before stand-alone testing sites were mobilized it was McLeod and MUSC Florence that were conducting COVID testing.
"We have the burden of testing, then we got the most critical burden, that only we can do, is care for the sick, particularly the most critically sick," Isgett said.
"We've really laid at the foot of hospitals — testing, trying to keep them out of the hospital with monoclonal antibody clinics, treat them while they're in the hospital, deal with the dying and the stress that places on your staff and now vaccinate the living," Isgett said. "That's a lot to lay at the feet of a hospital system and the ability to operationalize all that rapidly."
"If you think about what this state, this healthcare system, has had to mobilize over the last 11 months it's nothing short of heroic. To keep nurses at bedside when they themselves are getting sick. To have an open faucet of patients that exceeds our capacity on many days across our region. To watch us switch staff from one region to another," Isgett said.
"You're in a year-long crisis so I believe even from the governor's stance he believes he's doing what's right for the citizens of the state," she said of the governor's directives — such as expanding who qualifies for the vaccine. "It's hard to operationalize all those things."
Throw in the ever-changing and mutating virus and the science that follows.
"I'm not even critiquing the hospitals that haven't done 100 percent of their vaccine. I appreciate how difficult it is to turn on a dime and then the rules change the next week and they change again," Isgett said.
"The agility of this team has just been impressive," Isgett said of her hospital.
Isgett said that people need to understand that combating the virus is akin to living in a real-time science experiment.
Situations change and the medical community learns, adapts and treats.
"We're working on something that's moving all the time," Isgett said. "Will we learn better how to do it? You're absolutely right."
"I'm sure we're going to look back and see a lot of opportunities for improvement. It's hard being right in the middle of this and knowing you have at least enough ability to double what you're delivering," she said.
And time is not on humanity's side.
"We're also working against time and some worry about a more contagious strain in Europe," Isgett said. "If you don't have enough people vaccinated you won't have enough herd immunity" to be able to blunt, or prevent, the next spike.
"We need people to give grace, know where our hearts are," Isgett said of the state's hospitals. "Know operationally we are really doing yeoman's work. But to have grace that we're working as hard as we can work."
And about those vaccines.
"You're going to have your turn," said McLeod spokeswoman Jumana Swindler "You're going to have your turn. Be patient."
Digital Editor Matt Robertson is a veteran journalist who has fulfilled just about every role that a newspaper has and now serves as a key member of the Morning News' newsroom by maintaining SCNow.com and covering the occasional story and photo assignment.