Healthcare workers rejoice as COVID-19 vaccines arrive

Hope arrived in the Valley stored away in the back of a UPS truck on Tuesday.

Three white, oblong boxes packed with dry ice were delivered to DHR Health and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley hours before they were expected, and nearly a whole year late. Life-saving vials containing 14,625 doses of Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccines were compressed into trays inside the ultra-cold packages.

As a hospital employee wheeled the boxes perched on a plastic cart through the pharmacy into the back room housing the freezer, doctors and pharmacy workers applauded to mark the beginning of the end.

“This community was hit very hard when we look at the number of people who passed away per capita,” Dr. Carlos J. Cardenas, DHR Health chairman of the board and chief administrative officer, said.

Cardenas — a native who can trace his family’s roots in the rich Valley soil for up to eight generations — contracted the virus like hundreds treated at the hospital he helped create. Severe symptoms hospitalized him for a brief, dark period that will live long in his memory.

Healthcare workers like Cardenas and the thousands who risked their health — and buried colleagues whose lives were claimed fighting it — sowed in tears but now reap in joy.

A celebratory mood ushered in the rollout of the vaccines at UTRGV’s medical school grounds on Tuesday afternoon.

“Everyone is really excited. Everyone is very happy,” Dr. John H. Krouse, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine, said. “Our healthcare workers have worked in the hospitals with people with COVID and have been around some very sick people. So, they’re very enthusiastic that they may begin to be a little less fearful of working with patients in the hospital.”

Vaccinations, which are on a voluntary basis, began at 4 p.m. Tuesday inside the lobby of the medical school. Blue, semi-transparent curtains hung on room dividers and large numbers clung to each, marking the different stations of what Krouse described as a “massive undertaking.”

Krouse explained what a healthcare worker can expect in each step of the vaccination process: “Patients need to be registered. They need to be screened. They need to have temperatures taken. They need to get the vaccine. They need to be observed for 15 minutes after the vaccine is received in order to assure that they are safe. They need to get their second appointment in three weeks set up.”

Staff donning blue plastic gowns, face masks and plastic shields processed other staff who volunteered to be vaccinated.

The first person to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the Valley didn’t even flinch when the needle pierced her skin.

“For the past few months we have seen how patients can be affected by COVID-19,” Dr. Michelle Lopez said, adding “and the risks associated with the vaccine are nowhere near as terrible as the things that I’ve seen with my patients who actually get the COVID-19 infection.”

In the next four days, UTRGV aims to vaccinate between 400 to 500 people a day until their supply of 1,950 doses runs out. Though, more shipments will be arriving.

The first couple of thousand doses will be offered to frontline workers and vulnerable populations. Other providers like commercial pharmacies are expected to help vaccinate the elderly population in nursing homes. That’s the first phase of the rollout that will be followed by the second phase in which the public can expect a chance to get vaccinated.

“I’ll feel safer knowing that I have some protection,” Lopez said after she was interviewed by UTRGV staff following her vaccination. “I think I’ll feel safer going to work.”

Still, Lopez said she will be observing social distancing, wearing a mask and practicing good hygiene.

Transmission of COVID-19 from an inoculated person to someone who hasn’t received the vaccine could still happen. “Risk is low, but it’s still possible,” Krouse said.

“But, if you come in contact with someone who has COVID, you could still breathe those viral particles into your nose. They may sit in your nose for a day or two. They won’t get you sick, because they can’t enter your cells and they’re not going to reproduce because they don’t get into your cell. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have some residual viral material in your nose that could potentially be breathed onto someone else. ”

Both doctors representing UTRGV and DHR described the arrival of the vaccine as a light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel extends past Dec. 31, 2020. Krouse warned it could still be another year before the population at large is vaccinated.

Even without a fixed end in sight, a dark year will end a little brighter.

“I’m very, very optimistic about our ability to get some control,” Cardenas at DHR Health said.

Vaccinations are a key in helping secure the Valley’s future health.

Personally, Cardenas plans to get vaccinated, although he will cede the way to colleagues who managed to dodge the virus. He firmly believes ample participation is needed to end the long, weary battle with the ‘invisible enemy.’

“It is the absolute sword that we needed in this battle against the coronavirus in terms of being able to attack it in a public health kind of way,” Cardenas said.