The Single Step You Can Take to Reverse the Toll of COVID-19 on the Plateau: Taking the Vaccine

Tom Neal

Tom Neal

By Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA

From a public health perspective, there is no more important step that the residents of the Highlands and Cashiers Plateau could take now than to get the COVID-19 vaccine. This simple act, along with continuing to practice the “3 Ws” — washing hands frequently, wearing a mask, and waiting six feet apart — is proving to be pivotal in reversing the course of the pandemic and regaining a sense of normality. Imagine having a small group of vaccinated people in your home who are from outside your immediate household, attending a performance, eating out, or simply hugging a vaccinated friend or family member again. This is an accurate picture of the future if the United States reaches a state of herd immunity, or when such a great number of citizens are vaccinated that the spread of the virus is prevented to a large extent.

I am so passionate about our community members receiving the COVID-19 vaccine that I volunteered to lead the Highlands Cashiers Plateau Vaccine Initiative, an effort that offers support to our local health departments as they take on the task of vaccinating our neighbors here on the Plateau. I’ve been greatly enriched by working with this highly dedicated group of more than 250 volunteers. Though many of them have no background in clinical work, they nevertheless wanted to be instrumental in making our community safe again from this virus, which has robbed our country of more than 560,000 lives.

That said, I am concerned about the hesitancy that I and the other volunteers have encountered when discussing the vaccine with people. It is to be expected that individuals will wonder about any new vaccine’s development, safety, and efficacy, and I have had a great many conversations with Plateau residents about this very topic.

I am emphatic about letting people know that the vaccine is safe. Some whom I’ve talked to wonder if there were safety shortcuts taken in any way due to the speed at which the vaccines were developed and rolled out. Development was sped up because we are in a true and pressing public health emergency. Though two vaccines — the Pfizer and Moderna versions — were developed and rolled out in record time, the scientific protocols behind them have been being perfected for 25 years. All of the vaccines have gone through full clinical trials, and the Moderna and Pfizer combined clinical trials involved about 70,000 people, which is significant. It can take upwards of 15 years or more typically, for a vaccine to gain approval, but for the COVID-19 vaccines, instead of certain steps being performed one after the other, time was saved by executing them simultaneously. In other words, no steps were skipped, just done alongside each other to achieve the same outcome: having two revolutionary new vaccines ready that are safe to take. These vaccines have received emergency use authorization (EUA) by the United States Food and Drug Administration [1] (USFDA), a step the agency takes when there is an urgent public health issue present.

I also encourage everyone I speak with not to delay getting their vaccine because they think one is preferable to the other. Their efficacy is so similar, and each is nearly 100 percent effective at preventing you from having serious enough COVID symptoms that would land you here at the hospital, and in turn possibly having a fatal outcome, the two most frightening possibilities. It’s especially important for older people, Black, Native American, and Latinx community members to be vaccinated, as the virus has hurt these populations disproportionately. Each vaccine requires two shots spaced several weeks apart, and both are free of charge.

As for side effects, most people experience injection site soreness for a day or two after the first dose, and the second dose is frequently accompanied by some flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, body aches, and low-grade fever. Though you may not experience symptoms, if you do, your immune system is behaving as it should — learning to recognize and combat the virus (though if you don’t have symptoms, it doesn’t mean that your immune system isn’t working properly).

When we received our first vaccine shipment and had our initial vaccination event at the hospital back in late December, we vaccinated Highlands-Cashiers Hospital [2] (HCH) and Eckerd Living Center [3] (ELC) team members, as well as ELC residents. Because each vial of vaccine is precious, the hospitals, health departments, and federally qualified health centers (FQHC) that have been given vaccine allotments must prove that they can properly store their supplies, as they require refrigeration and one must be stored at extremely low temperatures. Mission Health is part of the Western North Carolina Vaccine Acceleration Consortium, which ensures that vaccine supplies are equitably distributed throughout our region. After our staff was vaccinated, we shared our supply with the local health departments, and later to the local pharmacies. We continue to share our weekly supply.
If you know someone who is questioning getting vaccinated, or if you yourself are hesitant, please reconsider. Every person who gets the vaccine is actually responsible for saving lives. The easiest way to find a location for your vaccine is to visit the NCDHHS. [4]

The following are other vaccine providers:

It’s easier to get your vaccine now too, because as of April 7, everyone 16 and older is eligible to receive one; there are no more tiers you have to track.

Getting your shot means less likelihood for viral transmission in our community, and fewer hospitalizations and deaths. You’re protecting your family, co-workers, neighbors, and the entire Plateau community, in addition to yourself, by stepping up and rolling up your sleeve.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital aerial view


Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, [2] a member of Mission Health, an operating division of HCA Healthcare, is a community hospital serving Macon, Jackson and the surrounding counties. Located on Highway 64 between the towns of Highlands and Cashiers, the hospital offers 24/7 emergency care, acute inpatient care, rehabilitation, as well as long-term care through Eckerd Living Center. Highlands-Cashiers Hospital has 24 beds for acute care services and 80 beds in the Eckerd Living Center. Ambulatory services are also available, including therapy services and primary care practices serving both Highlands and Cashiers.