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Health Team

With scores of infected workers, Duke Health preps to vaccinate staff

Posted December 4, 2020 3:00 p.m. EST
Updated December 4, 2020 7:15 p.m. EST

— The Duke University Health System continues to plan for the mass vaccination program that will begin shortly after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration grants emergency authorization to one or more coronavirus vaccines.

A special vaccination room has been set up inside Duke University Hospital, and the system has three ultra-cold freezers needed to store Pfizer's vaccine.

Duke officials say the first health care workers to get vaccinated will be those who treat COVID-19 patients, work in the emergency department or intensive care units and staff who are "mission critical" to keeping the whole operation running. They hope to get 5,000 staff members vaccinated in the first round.

"The biggest question that we have outstanding right now [is] how much are we going to get, when are we going to get it, what is that schedule that it comes on, is it on a weekly basis?" said Jason Zivica, director of emergency preparedness at Duke Health.

Nursing program manager Rita Oakes noted that Duke Health has more than 150 employees who have the coronavirus now. The hospital system has more than 20,000 employees.

Administering the vaccine is going to take so many hands on deck that Duke Health officials have been asking some retired nurses to help give the shots.

"Staffing is definitely, at this point, is one of our biggest issues," Oakes said. "Training the staff and getting enough staff have probably been the two biggest issues right now."

Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert at Duke, noted that side-effects from the vaccine are possible, so employees will be monitored after getting it.

"We’re planning for people to be here for 15 to 20 minutes, and usually, by that stage, they’ll be fine and ready to go back to work," Wolfe said.

"What’s going to be even more complex is getting all of these individuals scheduled for the second dose of the vaccine," said Kuldip Patel, Duke Health's chief pharmacy officer, noting the Pfizer vaccine and one produced by Moderna both require two shots three weeks apart.

After working long hours for months during the pandemic, many hospital workers are excited for a vaccine to finally arrive, calling it another layer of protective gear.

"Having this vaccine is so exciting. We can’t wait to begin to give it to our employees," Oakes said.

"From a health care worker perspective, it is the light at the end of the tunnel," agreed Dr. Joseph Rogers, Duke Health's chief medical officer. "This has looked so desperate for such a long period of time."

After vaccinating its own workers, officials said they expect Duke Health to play a prominent role in vaccinating people in area communities.

"A year ago, we did not know what COVID was, and here we are now talking about trying to roll out a vaccine. That is unprecedented," Wolfe said.