‘Today we take the fight to the virus’: Montco opens first COVID vaccine clinic

Phase 1A health care workers who live or work in Montgomery County were inoculated by appointment only at the community college in Blue Bell.

Licensed practical nurse Starlette Sumpter administers COVID-19 vaccinations at a clinic

Licensed practical nurse Starlette Sumpter administers COVID-19 vaccinations at a clinic at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Even behind their masks, it was clear health care workers in Montgomery County were smiling from ear to ear Wednesday after receiving their doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

“I was excited to have the opportunity because we know that we need to get vaccinated to prevent the COVID spread,” said Cornelia Lavong, vice president for clinical operations and chief nursing officer at Red Lion Home Health Care in Wynnewood.

Lavong was one of the first people inoculated at the county’s first vaccination clinic, at Montgomery County Community College’s Blue Bell campus.

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“While much of the work that came before today was to defend our community from the virus, today we take the fight to the virus as we begin mass vaccination with a vaccine that is both safe and effective,” said Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the county commissioners.

Only Phase 1A workers who live or work in Montgomery County were allowed to register for the appointment-only clinic, conducted in the gymnasium at the college’s Health Sciences Center.

“We will not be able to accommodate any walk-up vaccinations,” Arkoosh said.

County officials estimated that there are 20,000 people who meet the criteria for Phase 1A. Those who do must complete a screening survey prior to requesting vaccine appointments. The county’s Office of Public Health reviews the surveys and sends out the registration forms.

The county says it will not send out registration links to survey respondents until they know for sure they have enough supply.

“Vaccine availability is still limited, which is why we are starting distribution in a phased approach. As more doses become available, we will be able to vaccinate more people at more locations as well,” said Ken Lawrence, vice chair of the county commissioners.

Health care workers lined up to be vaccinated in the gymnasium at Montgomery County College, where officials estimate 800 vaccinations a day will be administered. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

At Wednesday’s first clinic, a temperature-check station awaited arrivals. Once inside, health care workers had to verify their appointments and their employment by showing medical badges, licenses, or even pay stubs at one of the four sign-up tables.

“I just want to assure and say to anyone who is doubting the efficacy and safety of this vaccine: They have no worries. I’m on the frontline and could not wait to get this vaccine. I have seen the ravaging of this virus with my community, family, and friends,” said Willie Mae Bell, a registered nurse with the Office of Public Health.

More than a dozen county and agency nurses, along with volunteers, staffed the six vaccination lines, separated by caution tape. After receiving the vaccine, individuals received vaccination cards and were asked to sit in a holding area for 15 minutes to be monitored.

“The card actually tells them the name of the vaccine, the date that they received the vaccine, and where the vaccine was administered. This card also, when they are vaccinated, will have put on it their date for their second dose,” Bell said.

For frontline health care workers, the vaccine provides a much-needed sense of security, given the threat of exposure to the virus at work.

“I think it’s very, very important. I am a dentist, so I am on the frontlines, and we are the people who when you come to our office to be treated, we ask you to take your mask off. So this is an environment that makes myself and our staff much safer,” said Nancy Rosenthal, whose office is in Jenkintown.

Daniel Keiper is a dentist in Plymouth Meeting. He took a selfie while getting the vaccine, to record the “momentous occasion” and encourage friends and family about what he believes may be the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“I’m just happy that I got this vaccine. I can protect my 7-month-old son at home and my wife,” Keiper said.

Casey Reeman is a crisis intervention case worker with the Montgomery County Emergency Service. She was happy to receive the vaccine because her work is done in a small setting. She believes that the vaccine has broader implications on developing a communal atmosphere.

“The importance, I think, is just kind of this idea of thinking outside of ourselves and thinking of other people around us. I think that we can kind of grow as a communal culture in this way and have more of a reciprocal care for each other,” Reeman said.

First to be vaccinated Wednesday was Terrace Daniels, a health care provider from Philadelphia who works in Montgomery County. Although he said he was a bit skeptical of the vaccine, he got it to raise trust among his staff.

“I think that sometimes you just have to put the thought and logic behind you and just go with trust and hope that the right people have your best interest at heart, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” Daniels said.

Commissioners Vice Chair Lawrence spoke at length about vaccine mistrust in communities of color. He wants people to have trust in the vaccine and to avoid misinformation.

“Please do not get your medical information from social media, from Facebook, from Twitter. Talk to your medical professional,” Lawrence said.

Despite the largely celebratory atmosphere as many received the vaccine, county officials were hesitant to declare victory.

“Today is bittersweet. As exciting as it is to have a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus, we must never forget those already deeply impacted by this disease,” Arkoosh said. “This day has come too late for the 1,028 Montgomery County residents that have lost their lives to this disease and the 34,930 individuals that we know have contracted COVID-19.”

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Registered nurse Pat DeHorsey vaccinates Cornelia Lavong at a county run clinic at Montgomery County College in Blue Bell, Pa. Lavong is vice president for clinical operations and chief nursing officer for Red Lion Home Care in Wynnewood, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Montco officials say the community college site has the capacity to vaccinate roughly 800 people a day. The clinic will operate Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. as long as supply holds steady.

“As more vaccine doses become available, more appointment slots and vaccination clinics will be opened,” Arkoosh said.

County officials are asking the public to be patient. The county hopes to begin vaccinating people in Phase 1B, which includes seniors over 75, teachers, and more, by late January or the beginning of February. The county does not have an estimate on the size of group 1B but expects it to be very large.

Chester and Delaware counties have released their own vaccine survey for people in Phase 1B, and another for health care workers who are not employed at hospitals, as they begin planning their rollout of the vaccine.

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