DARLINGTON — Just 150 yards away from where the likes of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt once celebrated hard-fought victories, Emily Adams couldn’t help but get choked up — but she knows March 5 will go down as the most important day in the long history of Darlington Raceway.

As hundreds of cars made their way onto the racetrack, it represented a new chase to the finish line — in the form of 5,400 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

In one day, thousands of lives changed.

“Today, this is our redemption,” said Adams, the vice president of patient services with McLeod Health, which partnered with the raceway to put on South Carolina’s largest single-day vaccination event to date.

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In five days, McLeod Health has administered 10,800 doses across two mass vaccination events, the first a two-day stint at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center that was limited to those in Phase 1A, which includes health care workers and those 65 and older.

On Friday, with the blessing of Gov. Henry McMaster, those in Phase 1B — those 55 and up, essential workers and people with underlying health conditions — were vaccinated for the first time. McLeod officials estimated nearly 4,500 were from the newly eligible group — with the rest of the state needing to wait until March 8 to try to find an appointment.

With appointments lagging on March 2, McMaster worked with McLeod officials to make the announcement that Phase 1B would eligible to get the vaccine at Darlington, with more than 4,000 signing up in a 30-hour period, providing a sell-out at a venue quite used to them.

It also kept many from making the trek to neighboring states to get the vaccine, including Georgia, North Carolina and even Louisiana.

Romalis Dorris and his wife, Cheryl, had booked appointments in the Bayou State and had been planning to drive all the way there Friday from their home in Lugoff until they were able to score spots at the Darlington event. 

“I’ve been looking forward to this day, to getting back to some kind of normal life,” said Romalis Dorris, 60, who works at the nuclear plant in Hartsville. “We haven’t been to a restaurant or church since last March.”

“It’s going to feel good to start living again,” said Cheryl Dorris, 62.

While teachers from Florence 1 were a common sight, some came from as far as Horry County, where plans were still not firm as to when vaccinations would occur locally — although Conway Medical Center announced late March 5 that it would begin the process on March 12.

Horry County Schools kindergarten teacher Cori Canada had planned to travel to North Carolina next week to get her vaccination but switched gears after hearing positive feedback about McLeod-run events.

She left the racetrack impressed by how smoothly the event was run, providing a positive experience after a negative year for so many.

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“I traveled because I wasn’t sure how long the rollout would take for HCS,” Canada said.

Cathy Ahlschlanger, 59, cried with excitement when her appointment was confirmed.

In a few weeks, Ahlschlanger said she’s planning to visit her 85-year-old mother, who’s about to get her second vaccine shot in Florida.

“I’ve been very emotional because we’ve definitely followed the protocol, we have not been in a restaurant, we have not been able to socialize, and we retired to be social,” Ahlschlanger said. “It’s been a rough year. Thank goodness for Zoom, but I need a hug.”

And smiles were a lot more prevalent throughout the day, from the some 350 volunteers working the 10-hour shift to the legion of politicians who arrived mid-afternoon to tour the facility and tout the state’s progress in vaccine distribution.

Tom Rice, the recently maligned and politically targeted District 7 representative, heaped praise on McMaster, with the two exchanging pats on the back and a chuckle or two over racing puns used by Rice as he addressed the media.

Rice pointed to a recent conversation with McMaster over a concerted effort to address rural counties throughout the Pee Dee region. He specifically pointed to Marion County, where early adoption of the COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t high. Rice credited McMaster in helping the county reach an 18 percent vaccination rate within two weeks.

“(McMaster) is making sure not only that vaccine gets out, but that it gets distributed fairly,” Rice said.

Just a day before the one-year anniversary of the first known cases in South Carolina, Jumana Swindler, a McLeod Health spokeswoman, said that the medical outlet did not fathom hosting a life-saving vaccine event this time in 2020.

While her belief in science is strong, watching drivers honking horns in excitement and patients in tears as they were stuck with a needle was an unexpected delight for Swindler.

“It’s truly a miracle,” Swindler said.

And now that McMaster has indicated all week that supply of multiple COVID-19 vaccines is ramping up, Will McLeod, administrator of McLeod Regional Medical Center, said that organizers spent weeks planning the event with experience in mind — an extra ray of sunshine on an already sunny and brisk day.

And after a year that claimed so many lives due to a pandemic, the Darlington event brought about the opportunity for the polar opposite.

“We get to save lives today,” McLeod said.

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