Chester County begins vaccinating its frontline health workers — and Delco’s

James Kerr, an EMT with Emergency Medical Staffing Solutions, is prepped to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from public health nurse Pat Moore

James Kerr, an EMT with Emergency Medical Staffing Solutions, is prepped to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from public health nurse Pat Moore. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the current surge?

James Kerr’s full-time job is teaching people how to work in emergency services, and when he’s not teaching, he’s doing the work of a first responder part time.

He loves being able to help people, he said, but this year has had him walking on eggshells, constantly weighing the danger he’s potentially exposing himself to at work, whether it’s at a coronavirus testing site or transporting a COVID-19 patient.

“I have a respiratory problem that my doctor says if I get [the virus], it’s probably going to kill me,” said Kerr, 54, who added that his employer has been very accommodating during this time.

Six people he knows in emergency services — both instructors and those out in the field — contracted the virus this year, he said. Four of them died.

Kerr was one of dozens of people to come to Chester County’s Government Services Center Tuesday morning to get the first shot of the two-dose Moderna vaccine.

James Kerr, an EMT with Emergency Medical Staffing Solutions, enters the Chester County Public Health Department’s health clinic to receive the Moderna vaccine. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The county got its first doses — enough to inoculate 2,000 people — last week, and it started vaccinating the vaccinators on Dec. 23 going into Christmas Eve.

With Tuesday’s wave of vaccinations, the county is now formally in Phase 1A, said Chester County Health Director Jeanne Casner. That phase includes frontline health care workers like key hospital staff, and includes 911 call center dispatchers, health care providers outside hospital settings, and coroner staff.

Chester County Health Director Jeanne Casner. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The list is long and the pace at which the county can distribute vaccines depends on supply, but Casner said Chesco plans to order as many vaccine doses as the state allows every week. For now, it looks like 2,000 doses is the baseline.

“We’ll always ask for more and take as much as we can get,” she said. “So even as of this week, we’re asking for more than the 2,000, so then we can increase our throughput … There may be weeks that shipment doesn’t come to us, but at minimum we will follow the process to ensure we’re actively ordering.”

The process itself is painless, said Kerr and others. Recipients of the vaccine pick their time slots then walk into the government services building, where they’re screened for COVID-19 symptoms before they’re allowed inside a room where a nurse will give them the shot to the arm within seconds. Next, they are guided to a room where they wait for 15 minutes to make sure they have no allergic reactions to the vaccine, and they book their appointments for the second dose.

For the next several weeks, this government services building will also host vaccinations for Delaware County’s critical health care workers — people like Kerr.

Delaware County doesn’t have a health department yet —  the plan is to open one in 2022 — so Chester County has been taking the lead in Delco’s coronavirus response.

Next month, Delco is slated to open a Wellness Center in Yeadon that will also serve as a vaccination hub. But for the next several weeks, staff from Delaware and Chester counties will deploy side by side.

Staff of the Chester County Public Health Department are administering the COVID-19 vaccine. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Delaware County staff will actually join us [Wednesday], so we’re going to consolidate into this location for a couple of weeks while the rest of their team is finishing the setup of their clinic,” said Casner.

Whether from Delco or Chester County, those getting their vaccines Tuesday were generally emotional.

Allison Brown, a school nurse with Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, could only talk about how grateful she felt as she looked at the bandage on her arm.

Allison Brown, Union Mills Chadds Ford School District nurse, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from RN Penny Caracas. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“In the beginning of this pandemic, I was coming home, stripping in my garage from my scrubs, just trying to help my little two young ones and my husband not be exposed to anything,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking, I’ll be honest with you.”

Even though her school is only working a hybrid model where children are going into the building four days a week for half the day, Brown said just traveling to school added a level of fear that any one interaction could be the one that exposed her to the virus.

“I feel good,” she said as she headed to make the appointment for her next dose. “It’s been a long pandemic.”

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