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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tiffany Dover, nurse manager, gets her COVID-19 vaccination from Valerie Vargo on Dec. 17, 2020.

Hundreds of front-line health care workers at Chattanooga's local hospitals eagerly rolled up their sleeves when the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived on Dec. 17, 2020 — but only one would become the center of an international conspiracy theory and is now the subject of a new NBC News podcast series investigating the rapid spread of misinformation online.

Tiffany Dover, a nurse manager in CHI Memorial's COVID-19 unit, spoke during a news briefing at the hospital shortly after receiving her first vaccine dose that December day.

Overcome with emotion, Dover recalled the difficulty of treating coronavirus patients and how grateful she was that vaccines able to protect people from the worst effects of the virus were now available. Then she said she felt dizzy, and she fainted into the arms of nearby physicians as local news stations livestreamed the event.

Moments later, she awoke and said that she was fine, explaining that she often feels light-headed and faints when in minor pain or undergoing medical procedures, such as getting a shot or having blood drawn.

But as Dover returned to work and tried to move on with her life, footage of her fainting episode was taking off among anti-vaccination and conspiracy theory groups online — catching the attention of NBC News senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny, who covers misinformation, extremism and the internet.

"I sort of watched in real-time as the comments devolved into real conspiracy thinking, so I was interested right away," Zadrozny said by phone on Wednesday.

(READ MORE: A year of 'liquid gold': The ups and downs of the vaccine rollout in Hamilton County)

Zadrozny set out to do a story. But when attempts to reach Dover proved unsuccessful, she landed on the idea for a podcast. The first two episodes of "Tiffany Dover is Dead*" became available for download and streaming on any podcast platform Monday, with the other episodes of the five-episode series set for the next three Mondays.

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"It became such an important piece of misinformation that we felt like we wanted to cover it," Zadrozny said, "and a podcast just seemed to be the way that we could do that and really get into sort of the nitty-gritty about how these things spread and who they harm, beyond just Tiffany."

In the spaces that she frequents in her reporting, Zadrozny said that Dover is "one of the most famous people on the planet," in the company of Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci. But unlike Gates and Fauci — who are used to being in the spotlight and have security and public relations experts at their sides — Dover is a regular person.

Increasingly, ordinary people are finding themselves at the center of misinformation and conspiracy theories, Zadrozny said, pointing to recent examples of election workers and grieving parents in the wake of school shootings becoming targets online.

"That's why it's so important to me. Because there is no playbook for how to handle it, and I think that people need to be aware that this is the life that's ahead of us — where anybody can be this person," she said.

(READ MORE: Ivermectin and outrage: The viral aftermath for a conservative Chattanooga activist who lost his brother to COVID-19)

The Times Free Press has also been unable to reach Dover for comment since covering the initial vaccination event and interviewing Dover along with other local media after she recovered from fainting that day.

CHI Memorial spokesperson Karen Long — who Zadrozny interviewed for the podcast — said in the past that Dover would not be made available for interviews, because the hospital's previous attempt to quell rumors with a video of Dover after the incident only made the situation worse. Dover did not speak in the video, and conspiracy theorists became convinced the person in the video was an impostor.

The podcast also features an interview with Local 3 News broadcaster Mary Francis Hoots, talking about the station's decision to turn the camera away from Dover after she fainted — causing allegations of a cover-up. Hoots told Zadrozny the camera was turned away just to give Dover some privacy in a difficult moment.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tiffany Dover, nurse manager, fills out paperwork before taking the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17, 2020.

The podcast details how Memorial has been inundated with messages, calls and intruders attempting to find Dover.

When asked Wednesday if Dover still works for CHI Memorial, Long said in an email it's the hospital's policy not to comment on employment status and that the video was taken down "because it was fueling conspiracies."

Zadrozny said the podcast has been hard to report given the lack of cooperation from both Dover and the hospital but recognizes that the nurse and the hospital have already faced lots of tough questions and criticism out of an effort to educate and save lives.

(READ MORE: Doctors grow frustrated over COVID-19 denial, misinformation)

"They were livestreaming the vaccines so that the community would understand, see doctors and nurses on the front lines getting them and feel confident about the vaccine. And a pretty terrible thing happened, not just to Tiffany, but also to this hospital," Zadrozny said. "I think that they have tried with an almost impossible situation, and I just personally appreciate all the work that they've done."

Though she said she has enough information to finish the project, Zadrozny plans to return to Chattanooga and conduct more reporting before the series is complete.

"Can I tell you how it ends? I think, honestly, that the listener and I will be finding out in real-time, together," she said, adding that her goal remains to debunk the conspiracy theory.

She also wants to make others more aware of the effects of spreading misinformation.

"Tiffany is about the sweetest person you could imagine — a [critical care unit] nurse manager in the heat of a pandemic, a great mom, a fun friend," Zadrozny said. "Everybody would aspire to be that. And when you can see yourself in the middle of that, hopefully, you can put yourself in that person's shoes and be a little more careful about what you share."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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Contributed Photo by NBC News / Brandy Zadrozny
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