First in line: Health care workers receive first COVID-19 vaccines

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Witham Health Services administered the first COVID-19 vaccines in Boone County Dec. 18, marking what health officials hope is the beginning of the end the pandemic. But they caution that the winter months are likely to tax hospitals and residents with new patients.

Witham is one of the more than 50 sites across the state charged with administering the first recipients of COVID-19 vaccines. During the first phase of the state’s vaccination plan, which relies on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national vaccination plan, front-line health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities will be the first to receive immunizations.

Shipments of the vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech arrived Dec. 17, and front-line health care workers at the hospital were the first to be vaccinated, Witham officials said.

Boone County Health Dept. officials were unsure how many doses the county would receive from Pfizer or Moderna, whose vaccine was authorized Dec. 18 for emergency use for people 18 and older. State health officials said shipments of both vaccines are expected this week.

“We are excited to get it, really,” said Witham Health Services Director of Infection Control Gene Davis, who was one of the first health care workers to be vaccinated. “The number of people a month ago when we first began to talk that this was going to roll out, there were a lot of people who were skeptical about it, and a lot of people were not really sure they wanted to (receive it). Over the last week, now that we’re here and people have begun to see the studies, there is quite a bit of interest, and people are swinging to the point that they really want this vaccination.

“We have something we can finally do to not just get rid of the symptoms but truly prevent this virus from spreading.”

For many at Witham, the vaccines are a sign of hope for an end to the pandemic that has embattled health care workers for nine consecutive months. But Witham officials expect the winter months to still challenge hospitals.

“Nine months has felt like an eternity,” Davis said. “It’s something that none of us have lived through. We have never had a frame of reference of what to expect next. Every day it is beginning to wear on health care professionals. To finally have a vaccination, something that may actually give us some light at the end of the tunnel, is extremely welcomed.

“We are probably not going to see the effects of the vaccine until spring of this year, so the effects of the holiday (means) health care systems will probably be more taxed over the coming weeks. It may get darker before there’s more light.”

Witham is tasked with vaccinating applicable Phase 1a recipients from Clinton and Montgomery counties. Davis said Witham employees worked throughout the day to vaccinate a line of people who were scheduled to receive their first dose. People receiving the Pfizer vaccine will must wait at least 21 days before receiving their second dose. Moderna recipients must wait at least 28 days between doses when those vaccines become available.

Dr. Chris Huffer, a pulmonologist at Witham who also was one of the first to receive Pfizer’s vaccine, said he was eager to get his first dose.

“There was a rush to sign up,” Huffer said.

Huffer said he has primarily treated COVID-19 patients since April.

“You feel helpless,” Huffer said. “Basically, patients come in, and we care for them, but we can’t really cure it or fix it. They just have to get better, but some of them don’t. So you feel awfully helpless in the face of it. That’s why this vaccine has been so eagerly anticipated among the medical staff. This is what will finally turn things back to normalcy, I think.”

The plan

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national vaccination plan, through its first phase, is to balance the simultaneous goals of preventing morbidity and mortality while preserving societal necessities. To accomplish the objectives, Phase 1a calls for vaccines for front-line health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staff.

Phase 1b is scheduled to begin Jan. 11 in Boone County, health department officials said, during which people 75 and older and front-line essential workers will be vaccinated.

In Phase 1c, people 65 to 74 and people 16 to 64 with comorbidities will be vaccinated, along with other essential workers. A start date hasn’t been determined for Phase 1c in Boone County.

The general public will receive vaccines in later phases, and health officials said an online portal would be created to register those who want to be vaccinated. Vaccine recipients are required to stay for 15 minutes after immunization to monitor for allergic reactions.

“As we have been told, our allocation will be based on need and interest,” Boone County Health Dept. Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tom Ryan said during the county commissioners Dec. 21 meeting. “So those who do sign up, the state will base their shipments of the vaccines to us to make sure there is no wasted vaccine.”


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