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Lovell FHCC staff steps up to create formidable COVID-19 team

Image of Military health personnel preparing to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Click to open a larger version of the image. Sheeba Varughese (left), IV room manager at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, and Navy Hospital Corpsman First Class Robert Viloria set up for administration of the COVID-19 vaccine at the McHenry (Illinois) Community Based Outpatient Clinic. (Photo by: Navy Seaman Apprentice Minh-Thy Chu, Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health)

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The COVID-19 vaccination effort at the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center has brought out the best in staff, many who volunteered to create a formidable team dedicated to one thing - getting shots in the arms of every staff member and as many of the FHCC's veteran, military, and military dependent patients as possible.

From the late December day the first Moderna vaccines were delivered with fanfare to the North Chicago, Illinois facility, it became apparent that what would typically be done through the Immunizations Clinic was too big of an operation for the limited clinical staff.

"We knew we had to stand up a group of people to basically volunteer to be vaccinators," said FHCC Assistant Director of Plans and Operations Kathleen Kennedy.

FHCC Gastroenterology Nurse Manager April Shaw was given the task of managing staff volunteers who would be running the staff vaccination clinic. This team dedicated six weeks to COVID-19 vaccinations for staff in the Family Practice Clinic. By the end of the seventh week, 73% of staff was vaccinated, including Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense employees.

Chief of Pharmacy, Laurie Noschese, and Regional Immunizations Program Manager, Randy Tolbert, were tasked to deploy staff vaccines. They got support from the team of volunteers including nurses, pharmacy employees, and medical support assistants.

At first, some Navy staff at Lovell FHCC were unable to access the online appointment booking tool developed at another VA facility for staff to schedule their vaccinations. Once the clinic had enough doses on hand, walk-in appointments were opened for all staff, which mitigated the issue.

As the clinic became busier, more administrative staff volunteered to manage the flow of the clinic, checking people in, handing out paperwork, and scheduling second dose appointments. This allowed clinical staff to focus on their medical roles – vaccinating and observing those who had received the vaccine. Volunteers also helped schedule appointments over the phone. According to Kennedy, there was never a shortage of volunteers to help the vaccination effort.

"COVID-19 operations have the ability to unify everyone as a team," she said. "It's something we all live through at work and at home. People really understand the significance of what they're doing."

At one point during staff vaccinations, a roving team of vaccinators and other volunteers brought the COVID-19 vaccine to Lovell FHCC Branch Clinics at Recruit Training Command and Naval Station Great Lakes, allowing staff members the convenience of getting vaccinated near their work sites, rather than at the main hospital. The ability to offer this option displayed the flexibility of the vaccination team, Kennedy added.

Since the vaccine was made available to FHCC Community Living Center residents first and then to outpatients in mid-January, the team has made similar trips to vaccinate staff and patients at Lovell FHCC's Community Based Outpatient Clinics, which don't have the capacity to operate their own COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

The start of outpatient vaccinations drastically increased the clinic's operations, from an average of 100 daily immunizations to about 250 a day. With this change, the clinic began relying more on administrative volunteers to keep the area organized and facility management staff to ensure the area was safe.

Active duty corpsmen assigned to Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command Great Lakes were another group of Lovell FHCC employees who volunteered to man the greatly expanded vaccination effort. During the mass push of Moderna vaccine doses, Navy corpsmen and VA employees were not only running the clinic but transporting patients through the hospital tramways to overcome accessibility limitations.

"It's a great opportunity for corpsmen to use the clinical skills they may not be able to use on a daily basis, depending on where they're placed in the organization," Kennedy said.

Since established in 2010 as the nation's first fully integrated federal health care center in support of both the Department of Defense and the VA, Lovell FHCC's mission is best captured through the motto, “Readying Warriors, Caring for Heroes."

One year after the coronavirus pandemic was declared, Lovell FHCC staff is still adapting to the changes in responding to the novel disease.

"The (COVID-19 vaccination) team is so focused on the patients and getting us out of this pandemic," Kennedy said. "No matter what is thrown at them, when asked if they can do it, the answer is going to be yes."

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