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O'Bleness Hospital

OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital. Photo by Ben Peters

Frontline health care workers at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital are expected on Friday to be the first in Athens County to have the COVID-19 vaccine injected into their arms. 

The hospital, one of 10 in Ohio that previously agreed to be a vaccine site, is offering its shipment of Pfizer’s vaccine to employees who work in environments that present the highest risk of infection, including the Intensive Care Unit, Emergency Department, Urgent Care and respiratory care, spokesperson Keely Stockwell said.

The news comes as a beacon of hope amid a surging pandemic that has infected nearly 3000 Athens County residents and killed six, devastated the local economy and accelerated the pace of the financial crisis at Ohio University, the region's largest employer.

The list of those included in the first phase of Ohio’s vaccine distribution plan is extensive, but generally includes health care workers who directly care for COVID-19 patients, residents and staff of nursing homes, and EMS responders.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said local health departments across the state, including The Athens City-County Health Department, could begin to receive doses of the vaccine as early as next week. But health department Administrator Jack Pepper is unsure exactly when Athens County may get the shipment or precisely how much vaccine it will receive. 

He doesn’t anticipate getting enough to inoculate all of the county residents eligible in the state’s first phase of distribution.

“We expect that with time all of those eligible recipients identified in phase 1a will be vaccinated if they choose to participate,” Health Department Administrator Jack Pepper said.

Local health departments are primarily tasked by the state with vaccinating EMS responders and health care workers who aren’t necessarily on the frontlines, including dentists and hospice workers.

The department is also responsible for inoculating residents and staff of long-term care facilities that aren’t enrolled in the federal government’s plan to vaccinate them though CVS Health or Walgreens. Pepper said there have not been any facilities in Athens County that are not signed up in the federal government’s program. 

Athens County EMS employs 66 people, who are all eligible to receive the vaccine once the health department receives its shipment, Pepper said.

O’Bleness, which serves as one of the only major hospitals in the region, has been overwhelmed in recent weeks as COVID-19 patients flooded its small ICU unit.

The vaccinations should prevent there from being a widespread shortage of frontline health care workers at O'Bleness, a phenomenon that has plagued many hospitals across the state as employees fell ill with the virus or were placed in quarantine. Leaders at O’Bleness previously warned that a shortage of workers could pose an enormous challenge for the small, rural hospital.

The Pfizer vaccine was granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration last Friday and has been shown to be more than 95 percent effective in preventing severe COVID-19-related illness in patients. The other major vaccine, created by Moderna, is expected to receive emergency authorization this Friday and was shown to be more than 94 percent effective.

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