Frontline workers get first vaccines

Area hospitals begin COVID-19 inoculations

UPMC Altoona emergency department nurse Brittany Leese was one of the first of five to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the hospital from chief quality officer Dr. David Burwell on Friday morning. Mirror photo by William Kibler

Just as many health care workers have set an example for the community with mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic, participants in the launch of UPMC Altoona’s employee vaccination program on Friday cited the importance of their exemplary role in helping to promote COVID-19 vaccinations in the area.

“They were willing to go first to show the community the vaccine is safe and effective,” Dr. David Burwell, chief quality officer at the hospital, said after administering injections to five frontline workers representing a variety of hospital departments. “We appreciate their leadership.”

Like other medical experts, however, Friday’s participants warned that, while vaccinations mark the beginning of withdrawal from the pandemic, people still need to mask, distance themselves, avoid non-household gatherings and wash their hands, as it will be months before the general public gets its shots and immunity takes hold throughout society.

“Don’t let your guard down,” despite the temptations of the holidays, warned hospital President Jan Fisher.

“I don’t think I deserve to be (among the) first,” said Dr. Mehrdad Ghaffari, chief of pulmonary services and medical director of intensive care units, about 20 minutes after getting his shot.

But getting it anyway may encourage others to trust in the science, he said.

The vaccinations — coupled with continued mitigations — are the only way to end the pandemic, he said.

Dealing with COVID-19 has been “very challenging,” especially for nurses, Ghaffari said.

At the hospital’s peak about a week ago, there were about 140 COVID-19 patients — 25 of them on life support, he said.

When patients get sick enough to go on a ventilator, mortality rates are about 50%, with worse outcomes skewing toward the older patients, according to Ghaffari.

Still, seeing patients with severe symptoms survive is “very rewarding,” he said.

The staff has a better handle now on what to do than in the beginning, he said.

In March, it was an unknown disease and “very scary,” he said.

Now, there are many treatments, he said.

Patient transporter Eric Olson had been unsure a couple of months ago whether he would want to get vaccinated when the time came.

Then his “selfless and loving” mother, 71, who didn’t have problematic pre-existing conditions, got COVID-19 and died on Nov. 14.

“It kind of changed my mind,” Olson said.

Emergency Department registered nurse Brittany Leese, who received the first shot among Friday’s five participants, has worried about the potential for bringing COVID-19 home to her husband, who, she feared, could subsequently infect his co-workers.

Getting vaccinated Friday “eased my mind,” she said.

Leese had also worried about infecting her husband’s grandparents, who ended up testing positive anyway, she said.

They’ve both recovered, although her husband’s grandfather was hospitalized, she said.

Leese has often felt helpless tending to COVID-19 patients who have trouble breathing, she said.

Even on maximum oxygen, they can get “panicked and scared,” she said.

“I can imagine what that feels like,” she said. “Breathing, but not getting a nice, cleansing breath.”

It’s difficult watching family members interact with such patients, being “all gowned up,” so that it’s hard to see their faces, she said.

And it’s difficult watching patients say their last words to family members before they go onto a ventilator, she said.

The work has been often stressful, she said.

It’s stressful to work in an environment of danger, she said.

That stress comes to a head when workers receive an alert about the need for an intubation or some other “aerosolizing” procedure, and everyone reaches for the proper protective equipment, she said.

Those who don’t have that equipment handy must back off, she said.

COVID-19 first became “real” to her when she was working at UPMC Bedford Memorial in the spring, after weeks of seeing no coronavirus patients, she said.

A husband and wife came in, testing positive.

The wife was OK, but the husband died, and the difference in the effect of the virus between two people with the same exposure made an impression that hasn’t dissipated.

For Johnathan Dodson, a certified registered nurse practitioner in critical care, the start of vaccinations helps offset the weight of witnessing “so much death,” along with the lasting damage done to survivors.

“We see what this does at its worst,” Dodson said.

But while vaccinations will eventually defuse the pandemic, they won’t undo the failure that underlies all those deaths, according to Dodson.

“(These deaths) were something totally preventable,” he said.

It’s “not debatable” that if the country as a whole had taken the pandemic more seriously, wearing masks and taking other precautions, things would have been much better, he said.

“That’s science,” he said. “You can’t argue with science.”

The hospital is hoping to obtain enough vaccine doses to inoculate all 3,000 employees, about half of whom have direct patient contact, by the end of January, according to Fisher and Burwell.

Employees who have direct patient contact — although not necessarily contact with COVID-19 patients — will get their shots first, they said.

Because of distancing requirements, the need for booster shots and other issues, organizing the vaccination effort is “an intricate process,” Fisher said.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine delivered so far came to the hospital in a special container packed with dry ice to keep an interior container with the vials holding 975 doses at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Jill Breton, director of pharmacy. The container has a GPS indicator so Pfizer can track it, and it has a function that indicates remotely if the temperature becomes a problem, according to Breton.

The hospital needs to recharge the container with dry ice every five days, she said.

The container will protect the vaccines for 30 days, and the vaccine can last an additional five days after that in a refrigerator, she said.

UPMC Bedford Memorial is expected to receive vaccine shipments next week, officials said.

The message from Friday’s event is that “all human beings on the planet” should get vaccinated, Ghaffari said. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said.


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