COVID-19 vaccine provides 'A ray of hope'

December 15, 2020
A woman receives an injection of the COVID-19 vaccine
MUSC Health nurse Metzfe Dela Rama gets the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. Photos by Sarah Pack

Never has a holiday package been more anticipated. 

On Tuesday morning, a box no bigger than a coffee maker arrived via UPS at the Medical University of South Carolina. Inside were 4,875 tiny purple-topped doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, a product that received emergency-use authorization by the U.S. government just four days prior.

Jason Mills, Pharm.D., pharmacy supply chain manager for MUSC, signed for the package as a representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked on. Once opened, Mills and Heather Easterling, Pharm.D., system administrator of pharmacy services at MUSC, had exactly three minutes to extricate them from the packaging and get them into the Sanyo Ultra Low Freezer.

“No pressure,” Mills joked as he and Easterling donned bright blue cryogenic gloves, a necessity when dealing with a substance that needs to be kept at -92 Fahrenheit to remain viable for an extended length of time. 

Collage of close-up images of the COVID-19 small purple-topped containers of vaccine 
Pfizer's vaccine requires extremely low temperatures in order to stay viable.

Once inside the freezer, the daunting task begins of earmarking and divvying up where each shipment of vaccine will go – MUSC has four locations in the Charleston area and four regional sites – before sending them out the door via courier to be dispersed. 

Two blocks away on Ehrhardt Street, Shemika Champion, R.N., a pediatric nurse at MUSC Children's Health, readied herself to be the first care team member vaccinated. 

“When we were told we’d be able to sign up, I was a little hesitant at first, to be honest. But I had to think of myself as a health care professional and what this would mean to my patients,” she said. 

The mother of three boys also thought about what it would mean to her family.

“I told my kids I was getting the vaccine today, and they were really excited about mommy being the start of a new beginning,” she said.

Champion was joined by MUSC pharmacists, physicians, nurses – anyone who touches patients at the health system was eligible to be vaccinated in the first wave – all lining up for their turn in what would no doubt be an historic moment in the United States, affectionately termed V-Day.

MUSC infectious disease expert Krutika Kuppalli, M.D., one of the more than 600 employees scheduled to be vaccinated on day one, beamed. 

“To use the words of Tony Fauci, ‘The cavalry is coming,’” she said. “This is very exciting.”

Kuppalli and Danielle Scheurer, M.D., MUSC Health System chief quality officer, are two of the key leaders overseeing vaccine rollout logistics. They both knew how important it was for them to be out there from the start, not only from an organizational standpoint but effectively to put their money where their mouths are and get vaccinated themselves.

Woman getting vaccine in arm 
MUSC Children's Health pediatric nurse Shemika Champion wanted to show her boys the importance of getting vaccinated.

“It’s a whole new era,” Scheurer said. “We haven’t had many hopeful messages since January. It’s been almost an entire year since something really good has happened in this country. You keep hearing, ‘We’re out of beds. We’re out of ventilators. There are so many deaths.’ The reality has been so grim. And finally, there’s a ray of hope.” 

MUSC Health nurse Metzfe Dela Rama, R.N., was one of the first people to sign up on the MUSC intranet site. 

“This is really important,” she said. “I’m not just doing this because of my job; I’m doing it for me, for my boyfriend’s parents. It’s just the responsible thing to do.” 

Scheurer expects the initial delivery of nearly 5,000 doses to be completely administered by the first of next week. Though it was an exciting day, Kuppalli and Scheurer both reiterated that it doesn’t stop the need for us as a society to keep doing what we’ve been doing – wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large crowds. 

“But that said, people need to understand that these are really good vaccines,” Scheurer said. “These are better than flu, measles, mumps. These are stunningly effective vaccines. Finally, something good has come out of 2020.”