Porter County Health Department continues COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Porter County Health Department continues COVID-19 vaccine rollout

After a tumultuous year of social distancing, mask-wearing, and collective grief for the people and time we have lost, the COVID-19 vaccines have provided a glimmer of hope that we are moving toward the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. States have begun their vaccine rollouts, and right here in Northwest Indiana, the Porter County Health Department is working hard and fast to vaccinate our communities.

“It’s been a long year, so we are so excited to be in this stage,” said Letty Zepeda, Porter County Health Department Administrator and the Incident Commander at the vaccine sites. “Every day, we have people come for their appointments, and they are genuinely grateful and happy to be there getting their vaccines. It’s been quite an experience.”

For almost two months since Pfizer and Moderna made their COVID-19 vaccines available, the Porter County Health Department has been administering vaccines to eligible Porter County residents. Housed in the 4-H Building at the Porter County Expo Center off of US-49—a generous gift to the health department from the Expo Center board—staff made up of volunteers, health department officials, and healthcare workers have inoculated thousands of people since receiving their first shipment of the vaccines.

“It all really began after 9/11, when states were looking to the federal government for assistance and guidance,” Zepeda said. “The federal government realized that it couldn’t do everything; some of the responsibility had to be on the state governments. So, they came up with a plan which has become the Emergency Response and Preparedness Plan, which allows them to enact a plan that is recognized by all the states, EMS, and police and fire departments so that everyone speaks the same language, everyone is on the same page, and everyone is prepared for an emergency and there is a chain of command.”

Like other states and counties as they began their vaccine rollout, the Porter County Health Department has followed this plan. As Incident Commander, Zepeda oversees the Porter County vaccine sites with the help of pod managers to run the site when Zepeda cannot be there, followed by section chiefs for planning and logistics, and finally administration and finance for the budget. Nurses and doctors have volunteered their time, while everyday community members around the county have stepped up to help with making the process as smooth as possible.

“We have our hired support staff and health department staff plugged in where we need them, but most of our nurses right now are volunteers. So, there are days where we may be short and we have a ton of people coming in and we have to rush to find a couple of volunteers to come in,” Zepeda said. “Everyone is exhausted and stressed, but we have worked hard to continue making the process smooth and quick.”

Fortunately, the health department received additional funding to hire at least 10 full-time nurses for each site to ensure there is a constant stream of support staff at the Valparaiso and Portage sites. And with the recent arrival of the Pfizer vaccine, and the continued rollout of the Moderna vaccine, Zepeda and her team look forward to continuing to vaccinate more and more people every day.

“We just recently got the Pfizer vaccine, so we are now able to offer both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines,” she said. “When we were only administering Moderna’s, we were seeing around 450 people max a day. But with both Moderna and Pfizer, we are processing 550 to 600 people a day, six days a week.”

The health department is able to vaccinate based on the number of vaccines they get, which is about 2,200 a week. As of now, Moderna is slowing down the processing of their vaccines while Pfizer is producing more and more. As of the first week of March, you will only receive the Moderna vaccine if you’ve already received its first dose and are awaiting your second dose. If you have not yet received your first dose and are scheduled to, then you will receive the Pfizer vaccine. The health department will not be receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

When it comes to either vaccine, there are no major differences between the two, according to Jessica Mahler, the health department’s epidemiological nurse who helps to coordinate and schedule staff and her 62 volunteers.

“Side effects from both are pretty similar,” Mahler said. “They have about the same percentage of effectiveness, so the amount of coverage you have after you receive your first and second dose is about the same. Coverage starts to kick in about two to three weeks after your second dose.”

“The biggest difference is, with Pfizer, you only have to wait 21 days for your second dose, while with Moderna, you have to wait 28 days,” she continued.

The health department has streamlined appointments since starting the rollout in January, processing 14 people every 10 minutes. With the help of volunteers and support staff greeting everyone, signing them in, and guiding them through each step, patients are in and out of the Expo Center in around 20 minutes.

When you arrive for your appointment, you will see signs directing you where to park. A greeter will tell you which door to go into, depending on if you’re there for the vaccine or for COVID-19 testing. When you enter the building, your temperature will be taken, and you will be asked the usual COVID-19 screening questions. From there, you will be directed to the intake tables to sign in and show them a copy of your insurance. Once you have signed in, you will take a seat in a socially distanced waiting area for your name to be called; once it’s your turn, a nurse will take you to one of 10 booths, where they will answer any questions you may have, provide you information about the vaccine and what to do afterward, and administer your vaccine.

“Once you’ve gotten your vaccine, you will then be directed to another socially distanced waiting area where you will sit for 15 minutes to be observed in case there are any reactions to the vaccine. If there is a reaction, we are prepared for it,” Zepeda said. “Once those 15 minutes are up, you’re free to go. It really is a quick, easy, and painless process meant to get you in and out on your way so you can enjoy the rest of your day.”

Much like her colleagues at the vaccine site, Dr. Maria Stamp, MD., the Public Health Officer who oversees the programs and provides medical oversight, has seen an incredible number of people who are excited and grateful to be receiving their vaccine, though she and her team are ready to reassure anyone who may be nervous.

“We do get some people who are nervous to get it, but we reassure them that the side effects are nothing to worry about,” Stamp said. “The most common side effects are arm soreness, headache, chills, fatigue, and mild fever, and subside after a day or two and respond to good hydration and Tylenol. We also haven’t seen any major allergic reactions to the vaccine at any of our sites.”

After you receive either dose, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself, continue to wear a mask, social distance, and wash your hands. It is still possible to get COVID-19 even if you are fully vaccinated as immunity does not set in until two to three weeks after you receive your vaccine, though the chance is greatly diminished due to the vaccines’ 95% effectiveness rate. With continued social distancing and mask-wearing, the risk of getting COVID-19 is extremely low.

The quick and smooth process is thanks to the enthusiasm of support staff, volunteers, and healthcare workers who work hard every day giving people a bit of hope after a long year.

“Just knowing that we are part of the solution is so rewarding,” Mahler said. “That’s what we are all here to do: stop the spread before it gets worse and worse. People are so grateful, and it’s gratifying to see that and feel that appreciation after a long year.”

“This process has been fantastic and so well organized,” said Laura Blaney, South County Commissioner. “People are happy to be here, and it’s been great dealing with a happy and cautiously optimistic public. I think it’s important to be out here helping because we want to get back to where we all want to be, and the only way we can do that is together.”

The Porter County Health Department wants the public to remember a few key things as they prepare for their appointments:

  • Indiana residents 45 years and older are eligible to receive the vaccine.
  • Arrive to your appointment on time.
  • Do not come into the expo center early to wait inside for your vaccine; if you have an 11:45 a.m. appointment, please arrive no earlier than a few minutes before your appointment time, otherwise you will be asked to wait in your car.
  • Wear your mask!
  • Social distance!

If you’re interested in volunteering, visit the Porter County Health Department’s COVID-19 portal at https://www.porterco.org/1724/Be-A-Vaccination-Site-Volunteer.

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccines, the Porter County Health Department’s COVID-19 response and preparedness plan, and for Porter County COVID-19 updates, visit their website at https://www.porterco.org/1598/Coronavirus-COVID-19-Updates.