Hope came in the form of a needle prick Thursday — after 170 Blount Memorial Hospital frontline workers were vaccinated against COVID-19.

Around 8:53 a.m., FedEx delivered one tray, holding 975 Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines, to the hospital, BMH Director of Marketing Jennie Bounds said.

About five hours later, Sarah Beth Foote became the first employee to receive an inoculation.

“I’m not one to like to be the center of attention, but I am honored that they wanted me to be the first one for our hospital,” Foote said. “I’ve always been one to advocate for vaccines, and I had already told myself I was going to get it.”

Foote did have apprehension about the vaccine, which was developed and approved with record-breaking speed, she said.

Blount Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Harold Naramore repeatedly over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic has asserted the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

“This vaccine is one of the biggest accomplishments in the history of medicine. It was developed in less than a year and followed all the appropriate safety protocols that are in place for any vaccine,” he said. “What’s different about this is the sharing of knowledge, the public-private partnership and the elimination of unnecessary red tape.”

Foote agreed, stating her apprehensions about the vaccine faded as she realized its importance.

“But, if it keeps us healthy and safe, it’s worth it,” she said. “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t take it.”

Foote is a registered nurse team lead in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, where she’s been for about five years.

She was one of the roughly 1,800 Blount Memorial employees to fall into the Tennessee Department of Health’s COVID-19 vaccination plan’s Phase 1a1 — the first group of people to receive the vaccine in Tennessee.

Phase 1a1 consists of hospital staff with direct patient exposure or exposure to potentially infectious materials, long-term care facility residents and workers, home care staff, COVID-19 mass testing site staff, student health providers and first responders.

However, Blount Memorial’s first batch of the vaccine only will cover hospital staff with direct exposure, Naramore said.

“The first group in our workforce that we are focusing our vaccination efforts on is those who work with our COVID patients or who, as a part of their role, handle COVID patient materials,” Naramore said. “Essentially, we’re starting with those who are in the highest-risk areas and working our way through the organization based on the allocation of vaccine we receive.”

For those workers, the vaccine comes after hours of overtime, missed social gatherings and repeatedly watching patients suffer and succumb to the virus.

“These patients are sicker than what we’re used to seeing,” Foote said. “So, the stress is more than what we’re used to. It’s hard to keep up and do everything you want to do for these patients.”

As of 3 p.m., Dec. 17, TDH data showed Blount County had 1,145 active cases of COVID-19 — a new record high. Blount County also added eight people to the virus’ death toll during the single day.

Because of the continuing rise, Foote plans to continue her precautions post-vaccination.

“I’m not going to feel invincible, but I do think I’ll feel a little bit more protected,” she said.

Receipt of the vaccine marked a hopeful day for the hospital, which has seen a drastic rise in hospitalizations and deaths as the virus punctured the county in record-breaking numbers this month.

“The feeling around here today is excitement and joy. We haven’t felt this kind of excitement and joy in this building since COVID began,” Bounds said. “To have the vaccine available for our employees who have been battling COVID for the last nine months is an answer to a prayer. It’s really exciting and it’s truly an early Christmas present.”

Follow @_shelbyharris on Twitter for more from county government reporter Shelby Harris.

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