Emily Beck came off the night shift at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix, where she’s an ICU nurse, and joined the line at the Arizona State Fairgrounds to get one of Maricopa County’s first COVID-19 vaccine doses.
The air buzzed with excitement as health care workers on the front lines gathered in their cars, awaiting the vaccine that brought them hope the end of the pandemic was, finally, in sight.
“We have seen more people in our ICU than probably ever before. We’ve seen a lot of death. We’ve seen patients without their family members present go through some of the worst experiences of their life. And we don’t want it to be that way,” Beck said.
Across the Valley, a similar energy filled the air as health care workers and first responders began making their way through a drive-thru to receive their long-awaited shot.
Twin brothers and emergency medicine physician colleagues Kris and Robin Samaddar got vaccinated together Thursday and said it was the first real sign of hope they’ve felt since the start of the pandemic.
Jenae McVicker, a critical care nursing educator at HonorHealth, was one of the first to get a shot. In a year of so much pain, she views the vaccine as a “silver lining” and “finally, a glimmer of hope.”
As a critical care nurse, she’s been long looking forward to a vaccine. But it still didn’t fully hit her until she got in line and realized she was among the first handful of people in Maricopa County to be vaccinated.
“It’s surreal. To wake up this morning and know that you’re going to be part of history is not something I ever imagined,” McVicker said.
Beck received the first shot at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, one of a handful of sites administering the vaccines to health care workers in the first phase of its rollout.
Outside an agricultural building at the fairgrounds, white tents were set up to shade cars as they arrived at the site after navigating a parking lot full of bright green safety cones. Inside the building, a team of people prepared the vaccine, filled out paperwork and administered shots to the people who had signed up.
The fairgrounds site became a COVID-19 testing drive-thru in March and will provide vaccines to about 1,000 people per day once it’s fully ramped up. The first day, about 165 shots were expected to be delivered at the site.
A similar setup is run by HonorHealth in northeast Maricopa County, which is where McVicker and the Samaddars received their doses. The site will be able to administer up to 1,000 vaccinations daily but plans to start more slowly. The HonorHealth drive-thru site expects to administer 15,000 initial doses in the coming weeks.
Maricopa County launched the first two vaccine distribution sites run by Banner and HonorHealth Thursday, with three more expected to open next week.
For now,only priority workers who are prescreened and preregistered can get vaccinated at the sites, with public vaccination to come later next year.
Vaccines also are being distributed in other programs. A 94-year-old veteran at the Phoenix VA was one of the state’s first patients to receive the vaccine, through a federal allocation sent directly to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Health care workers on the Navajo Nation also received vaccinations earlier this week through a supply sent directly to the tribe.
On Wednesday evening, 10 health care workers and first responders received the vaccine at the state’s public health lab, including Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, who has led the state’s pandemic response.
Health care workers leading by example
Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the chief clinical officer for Banner, administered the shot to Beck and other health care workers on the first dayat the fairgrounds. She said she wanted to show recognition of their hard work and show that she believes the vaccine is safe and effective.
“I think this is another testament that we feel confident about the vaccine,” said Bessel, who was wearing a festive dress with candy canes, holly and evergreens.
The festive mood was shared by Marcy Flanagan, the director of public health for Maricopa County, who witnessed the first shots at the fairgrounds on Thursday morning. It “feels like Christmas to me,” she said. When the vaccines arrived on Monday, she felt relief, her tense shoulders easing for the first time in months.
Both Bessel and Flanagan urged vigilance now, though, as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise here. Bessel said hospitalization rates are higher than they were in the summer. We’re in the “worst part of the pandemic” right now, despite the historic and exciting vaccine rollout Thursday, Bessel said.
“We can all do our part. It is no fun to get sick. It’s no fun to be hospitalized. It’s no fun to be in our Intensive Care Unit,” Bessel said.
Neither Bessel nor Flanagan yet qualified to get the vaccine but said they would join the line as soon as they could. But there wasn’t enough to go around yet, and front-line health care workers like those who got the vaccine on Thursday needed it most.
“You have a lot of health care professionals here today, first in line, some brilliant individuals that have worked in medicine for a lot of years, that are confident in the safety of the vaccine. So I think all of those should be signs for the public that it’s safe,” Flanagan said.
McVicker, the HonorHealth nurse, was eager to get the vaccine. She wants to be able to see her grandparents and hopes next year can start to be more normal at work again.
But she also wants to lead by example to show her colleagues and the public that the vaccine is safe and a positive step forward.
“I think part of being a nurse is being a leader with your community and within your own personal practice. Sharing my experience with people … especially nurses on the front line, if anybody’s on the fence, I hope that they’re able to see the benefits of vaccination and how this can really positively impact us.”
The Samaddar twins are both in leadership positions at HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center and said they wanted to get the vaccine to protect their families, be able to continue to help others in the ER and set an example.
“This is the first thing that really has given us hope against COVID-19,” Robin Samaddar said.
“People just need a hope because there hasn’t been any,” he said. “You read the newspapers and people are dying and you see that the numbers have surpassed what they had been over the summer. This is the chance.”
He said for months he’s treated COVID-19 patients in the ER, but much of the treatment has been supportive care. Doctors can give antibodies, oxygen, steroids or other treatments, but the vaccine is different because hopefully it can prevent COVID-19, he said.
“We’re still going to see COVID, but hopefully we’ll just see a lot less of it,” he said.
Kris Samaddar said the vaccine finally puts a possible end on the pandemic.
“When we started in February and March, we said it’s going to go until the summer. And then the summer hit, we surged July 7th. And then we felt good about two months ago, but we knew something was going to happen, and it’s happening now.”
What vaccination looks like
Just before Beck received the first shot, music boomed, playing Pitbull and Christina Aguilera’s “Feel This Moment.” People swayed to the beat and bounced up and down.
Before it got to Beck’s arm, the vaccine was stored in ultra-cold freezers in a tent inside the agricultural building, which Gov. Doug Ducey had toured the day before. It then moved to a refrigerator to thaw. Then, workers extracted a dose from each tiny vial, no larger than a thumb. A vial contains five doses, plus a little bit extra. Saline is added. All parts are checked and double-checked, labels are added, paperwork is filed.
Once ready, the syringe was set into a small colored bin to be walked over to a vehicle filled with an eager patient, sleeve rolled up.
Bessel was “very thorough,” Beck said, explaining the vaccine and potential side effects. As she administered the shot, Bessel announced that Beck was the first person to receive the vaccine at this site.
“Emily, are you ready? One, two, three. And you’re done,” Bessel said to Beck.
The crowd cheered and applauded, smiling behind their face masks and shields and tearing up. Beck got a blue sticker that said, “I got my COVID-19 vaccine!”
She headed to a recovery area outside to wait the required 15 minutes to ensure there were no immediate side effects that would call for medical assistance.
“I’m just hopeful that this is the beginning of the end,” Beck said as she waited in the recovery area.
It was time to go home, get to sleep, then wake up again tomorrow to continue treating patients in the ICU, where she and her colleagues have worked tirelessly for 10 months.
“I think we were all waiting for the vaccine, just kind of chomping at the bit to hear when we were going to get it and when it was going to be available. So now it’s just a feeling of excitement that it’s finally here,” she said.
The Samaddar brothers said they’re ready for the vaccine to make a widespread impact. For now, though, it’ll be another positive memory of twinhood.
“As twins, there’s going to be things that we always remember, like things that happened to us as kids, things that happened to us in college. I’d probably put this up there as being something that we’ll always remember,” Kris Samaddar said.
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