By Erin Emery, Kati Blocker and Cary Vogrin, UCHealth
Health care workers at UCHealth made history on Monday, becoming the first people in Colorado to receive a new, safe and highly-effective vaccine that prevents dangerous COVID-19 infections.
Dr. Christopher Merrick, a UCHealth pulmonologist, who cares for the sickest of the sick at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs, evoked the words of Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon, to honor the moment.
“In a Neil Armstrong-esque vein, with each of us taking this very small step, this will be a giant step for our community,’’ Merrick said.
Merrick was one of 40 UCHealth frontline staffers who care for COVID-19 patients and received the first doses of vaccines hours after they arrived in Colorado. Those who were inoculated included doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and environmental service workers who staff ERs, ICUs and other medical units dedicated to caring for COVID-19 patients. Thousands of additional medical workers will be vaccinated in the coming weeks as part of a plan the State of Colorado rolled out last week.
When the first Pfizer vaccines were delivered early Monday morning to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Gov. Jared Polis, was glad to provide his signature for the Fed Ex man, acknowledging a new tool in the fight against a virus that has taken more than 300,000 American lives.
“This vaccine, once it is widely distributed, will end this pandemic in Colorado, across the United States and across the world,’’ said Polis, joyful for the gift of modern science and the effort of the many who helped in its unprecedented development.
The doses delivered to Memorial and UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins are the beginning of the delivery. UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital will receive vaccine this week, along with multiple other health care facilities throughout the state. Though hope is on the horizon, the need to remain vigilant and continue to wear a mask, social distance and limit gatherings is still paramount, health experts have said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization to permit the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people who are ages 16 and older, allowing inoculations to begin across the country on Monday.
The FDA reviewed safety and efficacy data from 44,000 randomized participants and determined the Pfizer vaccine was about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19. A similar authorization is expected later this week for distribution of the Moderna vaccine, which also has been found to be safe and remarkably effective in clinical trials.
During a festive afternoon at Memorial Hospital on Monday, Tre Williams, an environmental services employee and a former Army medic, said he felt like he was doing something good for others by getting the vaccine. As a bonus, he said he didn’t even feel the needle going in to his shoulder muscle.
“It’s a 26-guage needle – it’s super small, like the smallest of the small,’’ Williams said. “It doesn’t even feel like nothing – I didn’t even feel a pinch. The needle is so small that I didn’t even realize it was happening.’’
Williams, who is Black, said: “In the Black environment, in our community, we fear the health care system sometimes. So, if we see someone else do it, and they’re feeling OK, we’ll actually take that step to go ahead and get vaccinated as well. I can be that leading example, that person who tells everyone else: ‘This is safe’ and they can do it as well. And then we can save our lives.’’
Across the U.S. people of color have been at greater risk of becoming infected and dying of COVID-19, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Blacks and Latinos across the U.S. are nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and nearly three times more likely to die of the illness than whites.
Each person who receives a vaccination is required to receive a booster shot later: three weeks after the first dose for Pfizer, and four weeks later for the Moderna vaccine.
“From a pharmacy standpoint, the initial dose gets your immune system primed. It gears it up a little bit, and when you get the booster, it initiates an even stronger response from the immune system, which solidifies your immunity even more,’’ said Chris Martin, manager of the pharmacy department at Memorial Hospital.
Here are some of the thoughts from the frontline heroes who were vaccinated on Monday.
Jeremy Hulsker had the honor of being the first person vaccinated at UCHealth in Colorado Springs by Tamera Dunseth Rosenbaum, the hospital’s chief nursing officer.
“I’m ready for life to get back to normal,” said Hulsker, a charge nurse in the emergency department for the last three years. He’s worked at Memorial Hospital Central for 12 years, five of them as a tech and seven as a registered nurse.
He’s cared for dozens of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic swept across the world in early 2020. On Sunday, Husker saw at least 10 COVID-19 patients.
“I’ve been in the ED (Emergency Department) for the past 12 hours, so I was in COVID gear for most of my shift,” he said on Sunday night, minutes after leaving work.
Hulsker said he wants to be an example for the community and a role model to others. He wants his kids to be able to go back to school and resume playing soccer and hockey with their teammates. He also wants to have a normal outing with his mother.
“My mom is 75; she lives three blocks from Memorial Hospital and I haven’t hung out with my mom since March except when it’s been outside her house. I’d like to be with my family again. The vaccine is a way we all can get back to normal.” Jeremy’s wife is also a registered nurse at Memorial Central.
Dr. Natalie Rochester
Dr. Natalie Rochester, an OB-GYN at UCHealth in Northern Colorado, helped deliver one of the first babies born at UCHealth to a COVID-19 positive mother. Rochester hopes the COVID-19 vaccine can soon bring peace of mind to other expecting mothers.
“Hopefully, this vaccine will make pregnancy less scary,” said Rochester, who was one of 20 UCHealth employees inoculated in northern Colorado Monday. “The anxiety and depression I see in patients right now is through the roof.”
Rochester is encouraging people to continue being diligent while public health experts distribute vaccines across the U.S. in an unprecedented effort over the coming months.
Respiratory therapist Marilyn Schaefer has worked in UCHealth’s northern Colorado hospitals for the past five years, but she became a supervisor at UCHealth Greeley Hospital during the first surge of COVID-19 patients in March.
“I found myself working shoulder to shoulder with my team as we were trying to figure this out,” Schaefer said.
She’s been on the frontlines at Greeley Hospital in Weld County, which has seen a high rate of infection and positivity rate. The hospital has been full of COVID-19 patients and those with serious medical issues. Schaefer works 10-to-14-hour shifts, then comes home to her husband and two children. Throughout the pandemic, she has worried about bringing the virus home to her family.
“As an African American female, I understand the hesitation of the African American community to take the vaccine,” she said. “But we’ve come a long way since the days of experimenting. I do believe in the science behind this vaccine, and I’ve been watching it closely. I do trust the process, and for the sake of the world right now, I think it is important for us to take this step to get back to a new normal.”
Nelly Eckhardt is an environmental services technician at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies. Eckhardt is Hispanic and knows she is at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19 and is a strong advocate for the vaccine.
“It is very important that Hispanics get the vaccine,” she said. “It’s a way to protect yourself and your family, and you’re elderly.”
She said she also supports her family in getting the vaccine when it becomes available to them.
“We all agreed that it is the right thing to do,” she said. “Be confident. These vaccines are going to be successful. They have been studied. This virus is killing too many people; too many people are losing loved ones. It is a sad situation and doing this is a way to win this war.
Dr. Jason Murphy
Dr. Jason Murphy is an emergency medicine physician who also has a master’s in public health. He has been working at Memorial Hospital for more than two years and says he can’t begin to count the number of COVID-19 patients he has seen since the start of the pandemic. What he can recount is the same conversation he has had with patients over and over: “It looks like you have COVID and you’re needing a lot of oxygen. You may need to be intubated.”
“I’ve had that conversation too many times to count. It’s the kind of thing that weighs on you as a provider. It’s been rough for all of us,” he said. As someone with a public health background, Dr. Murphy has been closely following the vaccine development process; he is thrilled it has arrived, and he’s confident that the vaccine is safe and effective.
Cindy Ramber celebrated 22 years at Memorial Hospital this month – all of them spent in the ICU. Cindy feels it’s important to be vaccinated for a couple of reasons. “I am a Type 1 diabetic, so I have a pre-existing condition,” she said, noting she is at higher risk for complications of COVID-19, should she become infected. “It’s also the right thing to do. It’s the only way to get the pandemic under control. I know there’s some fear around it, so if I can be a role model, maybe someone else who was afraid will get vaccinated because they saw me do it.”
In Cindy’s role, she sees the sickest of the sick and is called to bedsides throughout the hospital to help determine if patients need ICU care.
Cindy said a conversation with an aunt helped cement her decision to be vaccinated. “I talked to my aunt and said ‘I’m a little nervous.’ She said she lived through polio and smallpox and the only thing that eradicated this was vaccines. That really hit home for me when she said it; I haven’t waffled since.”
Dr. Alan Hathcock
Dr. Alan Hathcock has been practicing medicine for 20 years and is board-certified in internal medicine. He also has a master’s in public health and has specialized in hospital medicine since 2014.
Hathcock and a team of hospitalists in northern Colorado provide direct patient care at Poudre Valley Hospital, Medical Center of the Rockies and Greeley Hospital. Hathcock sees patients with COVID-19 every day.
“If I could only have people walk through the COVID units and the ICU and see the severe illness and suffering from both patients and their families, I think it would convince many to get this vaccine,” Hathcock said.
He has carefully reviewed the data and the science behind the vaccines. He’s confident they are safe and is excited that he got to be one of the first people in Colorado to receive it.
“It’s understandable to be concerned about anything new, just as it would be reasonable to have some healthy skepticism with any new idea or medical intervention,” Hathcock said.
“But I encourage people, look back at how this has been vetted and all the normal scientific processes that have happened with the rollout of the vaccine. This checks all the boxes. It’s effective in building the body’s response… I’m confident that this is a phenomenal opportunity for all of us, and one step closer to normalization in our society.”
UCHealth’s Cary Vogrin contributed to this report.
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