Angie Aynes

Photo is of Angie Aynes, MRHS Pharmacy Director with a vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

First COVID-19 Vaccinations in Polk County

Mena Regional Health System Frontline Staff Receive First Immunizations.

Last Thursday was a monumental day for the medical staff at Mena Regional Health System, as the first COVID-19 vaccinations available in Polk County arrived and began to be administered to excited and eager frontline health workers.

They then became part of what has been called the largest and most ambitious vaccination program in our country’s history. The vaccine is designed to immunize against the COVID-19 virus, which so far in the pandemic has claimed over 300,000 American lives, and has not spared our own county, especially in recent months.

Shipments of the frozen Pfizer vaccine began arriving in Arkansas on Monday, and Governor Hutchinson announced that a small group of Arkansas Department of Health front line health workers in Little Rock had been the first to receive the shots. Larger hospitals across the state began receiving the precious shipments in the days that followed, and the first vials packed in dry ice arrived at Mena Regional Thursday afternoon.

There was much anticipation at Mena Regional for those awaiting their vaccination, as well as the team of professionals on staff that had been assigned to safely administer the first doses.

Dr. Darin Swonger, ER Physician at Mena Regional, would be the first in Polk County to receive the vaccine. Like the other frontline staff at the hospital caring for patients with COVID-19, Dr. Swonger is no stranger to the devastation this virus can cause.

“I’m on the frontline, every day and I am seeing Covid patients daily,” Dr. Swonger said while awaiting his shot. “This virus is like a Russian Roulette…you don’t know who it is going to take. I’ve lost friends, we’ve lost patients that have come through E.R.”

Dr. Swonger noted that the vaccinations for all staff were voluntary and not a requirement, and he stressed that from his research he was entirely comfortable and confident in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

“The vaccine is important to me personally because I have family and friends at risk. This vaccine is well researched, and all of the research I and fellow physicians have done show it to be effective and safe. Microbiologists have been studying and researching this SAARS type of virus for well over 20 years, and the government has invested billions into the development. This type of vaccine is how they will be making vaccines in the future.”

Dr. Swonger relayed that he keeps up with the 175 physicians he went to medical school with, and every single one plans to take the vaccine.

Along with Dr. Swonger, the first group of Mena Regional vaccination recipients sat patiently but eagerly in comfortable chairs while the freshly arrived vials thawed to proper temperature. MHRS staffer Shawn Youngblood meticulously prepared the doses and RN and Director of Quality Sara Hale administered the shot. The Pfizer vaccine is a two-stage process that requires a second dose in 21 days.

When the anticipated moment arrived, and Dr. Swonger had received the first vaccination, the room erupted in applause, as history had been made. Soon the others began getting their vaccinations. Plans called for additional Mena Regional front line staffers to receive vaccinations in the days following based on exposure risk. Including this first group of six, a total of 84 have now received the vaccine. “I feel fine,” Dr. Swonger stated a few minutes later. “Just like any other shot.”

A statement later released by the hospital on its Facebook page summed up the sentiments well.

“Our medical staff has been caring for patients on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic for many months. Today they were among the first in our area to begin receiving vaccines. This is an exciting and historic day in the fight against Coronavirus.

Despite the masks and shields, you can see a sense of hope amongst the staff. We can’t let our guard down with a long road ahead, but we can take a moment to acknowledge this milestone in our efforts to return to a sense of normalcy. “

Dr. Swonger added a personal message on why the day was so important to him, and an appeal to those on the fence about getting the vaccine when it becomes available to them.

“This is a devastating disease and it is something that I don’t want to take to my family, or give to someone else, or get myself,” he said. “This vaccine is a step toward gaining that immunity for the community that doesn’t allow me to pass it on to someone else. This was not a mandatory vaccine for me, but I had no fear or anxiety in taking it, and would recommend it to anyone.”

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