California nurses, doctors first to get the COVID vaccine

Eufemia Didonato

Hospital emergency room nurse Dorothy Dean treats COVID-19 patients nightly. She’s ready for some relief. If her employer offers her a COVID-19 vaccine shot, she’ll happily roll up her sleeve. “Absolutely, I’m getting it!” “Why am I so eager?,“ she said. Ten months with the coronavirus has been more than […]

Hospital emergency room nurse Dorothy Dean treats COVID-19 patients nightly. She’s ready for some relief. If her employer offers her a COVID-19 vaccine shot, she’ll happily roll up her sleeve. “Absolutely, I’m getting it!”

“Why am I so eager?,“ she said.

Ten months with the coronavirus has been more than enough. “Emotionally, I’m spent and ready for this to be over.”

Front-line health-care workers like Dean will be first in line to receive the initial injections of a new vaccine, created by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, that was rushed into existence this year amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 300,000 Americans.

National health experts say the vaccine is solid, safe and highly effective. In other words, Dean and others are going to be better than fine; they’re going to be immune to the virus.

Still, many Americans are leery of side-effects and will be watching the initial results closely before deciding whether they will take the double dose of shots themselves in the coming months as more of the vaccine becomes available to the general public.

The first vials are expected to arrive in Sacramento early this week, where they will be stored in specialized freezers at UC Davis Medical Center for distribution to hospitals in the region as soon as state and county health officials give the nod. A handful of other local hospitals will receive direct allotments as well.

UC Davis Health CEO David Lubarsky likened the moment to D-Day. “It is a defining moment in the battle to defeat an infectious enemy. It is not the end of the war. (But) we are in a position where we can defeat this virus and return to normal life. And it will be in the year 2021.”

The vaccine is not mandatory, even for health care workers who spend their days in intensive care units now filling with COVID-19 patients as the pandemic spreads through society.

Most health care workers who are offered the initial shots are expected to agree to take them.

“Admittedly, anytime you take something brand new like this there may be issues, but I am completely prepared to take it,” said Dean, who works at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe, speaking for herself.

She wears what she calls a protective “space suit” when treating COVID-19 patients, and she and coworkers take numerous other precautions. Some even make a point of avoiding standing between virus patients and return air vents. But Dean says she is older and worries that should she become infected, she could be at risk for a more serious case.

Some 265 nurses around the country have died from COVID-19, according to National Nurses United.

Laurie Harting, Sacramento region head of Dignity Health, which operates hospitals in three states, said her health care system has been taking the pulse of employees and has been getting a positive response. “The majority feel comfortable taking the vaccine,” she said. “It is more frightening being exposed to this many COVID-19 patients.”

UC Davis Medical Center ICU nurse Janine Tunnell-Buck is scheduled to take the vaccine on Saturday. She was diagnosed with cyclic neutropenia five years ago, which affects her body’s ability to fight off infections, sometimes making her immunocompromised.

In recent weeks, more than half of the ICU beds she oversees are occupied by COVID-19 patients. Sometimes her colleagues, who know of her medical situation, would help her with with her patient load. It sometimes that makes her feel guilty, she said.

“We know this is how it’s going to be for a while, and we have been practicing the guidelines they tell us,” said Tunnell-Buck, 55. “It is very high stress right now. As one nurse said to me, she feels like the musicians on the Titanic. All of this is happening and we are just really leaning on each other for support in our unit.”

She checked in with her doctor to better understand the risks and benefits of taking the vaccine, and he will give her final approval on Monday.

“I won’t get adverse reactions (to the vaccine), I just might not mount all of the antibodies, but I’ll mount some,” she said.

Will everyone take the COVID vaccine?

Not everyone is comfortable, though. Meredith Piggee, a nurse at Sutter Roseville Medical Center, said recently some nurses have expressed concern about the unknowns. “Most nurses are pro-vaccine, but we want to know if it is safe,” she said.

And anti-vaccination activists have been vocal nationally, adding to uncertainty about how many people will be willing to take the vaccine.

A national Quinnipiac University survey last week found that 37% of adults are willing to get the vaccine as soon as possible, 41% say they would wait a few months and 20% say they do not plan to ever get the vaccine.

“We are dealing with vaccine hesitancy, for sure,” said Dr. Oliver Brooks, co-chair of California’s vaccine drafting guidelines work group.

It will take about 75% of the adult public to get the vaccine in order to achieve herd immunity, essentially suppressing the virus, national health officials say.

Until herd immunity is achieved, the virus will continue to spread, and people will be told to continue wearing masks, Sacramento County health chief Dr. Peter Beilenson said. The government will feel pressure to continue some business shutdowns until herd immunity occurs.

There have been some adverse side effects noted so far.

In England, where the Pfizer vaccine already is in use, two people with significant histories of allergic reactions had anaphylactoid reactions, prompting concerns about whether people with those known issues should get the shots.

Trials have shown that more than half of vaccine recipients had brief flu-like symptoms afterward. Epidemiologists say those adverse reactions are limited and signal that the body is responding properly to the vaccine. The vaccine cannot cause a person to get the virus.

One of the Pfizer vaccine test team principle investigators, Dr. Timothy Albertson of UC Davis Health, said the side effects can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

“Fatigue, sore arms, low-grade temperature was the extent of what we saw,” he said. “It’s over in 12 to 24 hours.”

His UC Davis team, one of many working with Pfizer this year, tested the vaccine on 225 local volunteers. Albertson said the injection process is simple and similar to a flu shot.

He is more than willing to take the vaccine, which will involve two injections, about three weeks apart. “I will be right there as soon as they call me,” he said.

The timeline for the full vaccination program remains uncertain and will depend on how much of the vaccine can be produced in the next few months, and how smooth the delivery system is. Health officials say they expect to finish vaccinating health care workers and residents and staffers at long-term care facilities by the end of January.

Those will be followed in early 2021 by vaccinations for essential workers and for people considered at higher-risk for worse cases of COVID-19. After that, the general population will be allowed to get the shots, perhaps in late spring or early summer.

Dean, the nurse in South Lake Tahoe, said she is amazed at how quickly this has all come together. She is aware she may have some temporary side effects, but understands that is part of the package. “It seems like a pretty minor price to pay.”

Tunnell-Buck just wants to feel relief.

“It’s scary to think about getting a vaccine that we pushed through, and we don’t know what’s going to happen two years from now,” she said. “I just feel like we want to get things back to normal and be like they were, and this is the way to get that to happen. I want to be a part of that.”

Follow more of our reporting on Coronavirus & Vaccines: What You Need To Know

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.

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