Armor Against a Deadly Disease’: Healthcare Workers on Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine

  • Following the historic authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine, healthcare workers across the country have started receiving their vaccinations.
  • We talked with healthcare workers on the front lines about what this means to them.
  • They warn that even with the vaccine’s release, it will likely take months to get the pandemic under control.

This was arguably the most exciting and hopeful week of the pandemic, as thousands of healthcare workers lined up to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in the United States.

The first dose was administered Monday morning to a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York City.

Following the historic moment, healthcare workers across the country started receiving their shots.

Those who’ve gotten the shot say it’s a quick, painless process that will increase community-level immunity and decrease healthcare workers’ risks of contracting the new coronavirus on the job.

Even with the vaccine, it may be months before enough people are vaccinated that we see a decrease in cases without the need to physically distance.

Healthcare workers may be excited to get the vaccine, but they have voiced warning that the next few months will be challenging as many more hospitalizations and deaths are likely to occur.

The shot is quick and painless

Dr. Yves Duroseau, the chair of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, was the second American to get vaccinated.

“It’s like nothing different, from a technical standpoint, in terms of getting any vaccination,” Duroseau told Healthline.

He felt no different after the shot than he has with any other vaccine.

“Just some minor soreness at the site of the injection, and that’s about it,” Duroseau said.

Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, a Yale Medicine infectious disease doctor and principal investigator of Yale’s Pfizer COVID-19 trial, received the shot on Tuesday.

“I have always done HIV research, so never directly benefited off my work. Now, for Pfizer vaccine, this has come full circle for me, where I am receiving and benefiting from a vaccine I helped to advance to approval,” Ogbuagu said.

Ogbuagu said getting vaccinated has reduced his concern that he could contract the virus either at work, where he treats people with COVID-19, or out in the community.

“It feels like a weight lifted off your shoulder,” Ogbuagu said. “It almost feels like you put on some armor against a deadly disease.”

A turning moment in the pandemic

Ogbuagu said these initial vaccinations will boost the number of people who are less vulnerable to COVID-19, allow healthcare workers to safely do their jobs, and contribute to immunity levels within the community.

It’ll be months or longer before enough people are vaccinated that there is even a chance we can achieve herd immunity — the concept that widespread immunity in the population can slow the spread of disease.

Therefore, even with a vaccine now available to healthcare workers, it’s going to be a rough couple of months as hundreds of thousands of people in the United States are currently developing COVID-19 every week.

“It’s worth celebrating, but it’s a muted celebration because there will still be a lot of deaths and hospitalizations between now and really reaping the full benefits of the vaccine,” Ogbuagu said.

Scheduling the shots

Thousands of frontline healthcare workers have been contacted to schedule their shots.

Healthcare systems have been using electronic health records like MyChart to schedule and remind people of their upcoming vaccination appointments.

The first priority group includes people who come into close contact with people with COVID-19: emergency medicine physicians, intensive care unit (ICU) doctors, and healthcare workers within COVID-19 units.

Duroseau said this involves “the people who are truly on the front line who have the highest risk of exposure.”

As more vaccine doses become available, healthcare workers in other departments and clinics will be prioritized for vaccination.

Yale plans to vaccinate 80 percent of all staff members who come in contact with patients within about 6 weeks.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is given in two doses 21 days apart. Those who get vaccinated this week will get vaccinated again the first week of January.

The shots are likely to be staggered among frontline workers, said Dr. Daniel Fagbuyi, an emergency physician and an Obama administration biodefense and public health appointee.

As an emergency department doctor, Fagbuyi will be vaccinated within a few weeks.

“Emergency folks may be staggered so you don’t have all staff call out sick at once if they end up feeling crummy for a day,” Fagbuyi said.

The shot is known to have mild side effects in certain people, such as fatigue, muscle aches, and soreness at the injection site.

There have been four cases of allergic reaction or anaphylaxis that are being investigated.

Two U.K. healthcare workers had allergic reactions, and another two in Alaska. One of the healthcare workers didn’t have a history of severe allergies, according to reports.

Receiving and storing the shots

Many healthcare systems have yet to receive their doses. Plans are still being finalized, as processes largely depend on when the vaccine is received.

“How do you get it efficiently in the arms of people and to the locations? That’s still a challenge,” Fagbuyi said.

As the vaccine rollout accelerates, there will be hiccups, but we will get through it, said Fagbuyi.

Many healthcare systems have invested in new cooling refrigerators to properly store the vaccines.

Other providers — predominantly academic and research hospitals — already had the units on site.

There’s a bit of a delicate dance when it comes to handling the vaccine.

Once taken out of the ultracold freezers, the vaccine must thaw out — which takes about 30 minutes, said Ogbuagu — and be diluted with a special solution.

When it reaches that state, there’s a 6-hour window in which it must be administered, according to Duroseau.

Could hospitals make the vaccine mandatory to staff?

Healthcare systems are currently highly recommending the vaccine but not mandating it.

Surveys have found that a substantial percent of the general population is hesitant about getting the vaccine.

That hesitancy also exists among healthcare workers.

A survey conducted by the American Nurses Foundation involving more than 13,000 nurses found that 36 percent wouldn’t get the vaccine if their employer didn’t mandate it, and 31 percent were unsure.

Fagbuyi expects people to warm up to the vaccine once they see others safety inoculated.

But if vaccine hesitancy among healthcare workers persists, some healthcare systems could consider mandating it.

Such a move wouldn’t be unheard of. During the 2009 swine flu epidemic, several healthcare workers chose not to get vaccinated, often because they didn’t see the need to or worried about side effects.

Many hospitals didn’t want to face liabilities pertaining to patients getting critically ill with the swine flu, said Fagbuyi.

Consequently, some hospitalsTrusted Source introduced controversial vaccine mandates requiring staff to get vaccinated. If people refused, they were subject to termination.

Could hospitals enact similar mandates during this pandemic?

“There is a potential. I would never say never. I’ve seen it before,” Fagbuyi said.

The bottom line

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine rolled out to frontline healthcare workers this week, marking a turning point in the pandemic.

The shot, which is given in two doses 3 weeks apart, will protect healthcare workers who care for COVID-19 patients.

Even with limited availability, the vaccine will also help boost immunity levels in the community.

Those who received the shot this week say it’s a quick, painless process and no different from other routine vaccinations like the flu shot.