SOMERS POINT — When Funda Dalkirmaz sat down Thursday to be the first employee to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at Shore Medical Center, she raised both arms in the air and exclaimed, "Finally."
It was a moment she had been waiting for after what has been an unprecedented nine months at the hospital.
"I love it," said Dalkirmaz, an emergency room registered nurse at Shore. "I'm really, really happy. I've been waiting for this. I've been telling everybody to vaccinate. I'm a very pro-vaccine person. I'm in the military, so I get vaccines a lot."
Dalkirmaz was the first of 17 employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which received emergency use authorization last Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Another 120 employees were scheduled to receive the vaccine Friday.
According to Matt Piskun, director of pharmacy at Shore, the first phase of vaccinations will be for employees who have direct contact with patients. After that, staff members who support those with direct contact to patients will receive the vaccine. Those who primarily work in the office space will be vaccinated third. In total, the first batch, which arrived about 9:15 a.m. Thursday, contained 975 doses of the vaccine.
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"It's an incredible relief, especially with all of the work we had to do to get the vaccine here in the first place and to set this all up," said Piskun, who coordinated vaccine efforts for the hospital. "It's probably been about two months of preparation, so it just feels really good to see it finally come to fruition."
Hospital employees lined up outside a small room connected to the cafeteria. They first had to sign acknowledgement forms before Emergency Department Pharmacist Earl Hugo administered the vaccines. The recipients had to stay in the area for 15 minutes to be monitored for any potential side effects.
"It was definitely exciting," Hugo said. "It was a long time coming. We've been expecting this for months, and it was nice being able to administer it to the people I work with."
Caroline Cipressi, a registered nurse who also works in the emergency room with Dalkirmaz, said she was on the fence about getting the vaccine until Wednesday.
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"Mine was a last-minute decision because I had to go talk to everybody," Cipressi said, "but (Dalkirmaz) got me to come up.
"(I did) lots of research and speaking with a lot of physicians on the safety of it."
Asked what the vaccine's biggest impact would be, aside from the health benefits, one word came to mind for several employees: hope.
"I think it brings a lot of hope because we've been dealing with a lot of COVID-sick people (and) a lot of nervous people," Dalkirmaz said. "So it's going to help a lot to bring more confidence, and then because I'm taking it, my patients will be able to take it because they will trust that if I do it, they will do it."
Cape Regional Medical Center of Cape May County also began Thursday.
On Friday, Inspira Medical Center began administering the vaccine to its employees across multiple facilities.
According to a news release from Inspira, the first ones to receive it were Cathy Vasquez, R.N., B.S.N., a research nurse from the Vineland campus, and Petra Smith, a respiratory therapist at the Mullica Hill Campus.
By noon, a total of 142 Inspira employees had been vaccinated.
"As a research nurse, I appreciate the thorough testing and approval process for new drugs, including this vaccine," Vasquez said in the release. "I am proud to be the first employee on the Vineland campus to be vaccinated. I want to encourage every member of the Inspira family and our community to not be afraid and to get vaccinated as soon as they can."
Friday was the beginning of Inspira's effort to vaccinate thousands of its employees in 21 days, and then repeat the process to administer the required second dose 21 days later. By comparison, the annual flu vaccination process takes around two months for Inspira, said the release.
"The planning and logistics would be staggering, even if we were not in the middle of a COVID-19 surge," Inspira Health President and CEO Amy Mansue said in the release. "I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has been a part of the process. Your unwavering dedication to this effort will save lives and reduce suffering in our communities and beyond."