Hundreds of doctors, nurses, and technicians became the first in Philadelphia to receive the COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, offering for a few moments some relief from the fear and anxiety they experience on the front lines of the worst pandemic in a century.
Then, many returned immediately to their hospitals’ ICUs and emergency rooms to tend to desperately ill patients.
Joshua Copeland, a cardiologist at Einstein Medical Center, got his vaccination and returned to a unit where five out of 14 patients are on ventilators due to COVID-19.
“Many patients on my service,” he said, “are intubated on a ventilator, very ill, critically ill, some that are on maximum support from a ventilator and it’s still not enough.”
Doctors and nurses said their own relief at getting the vaccine was tempered by the knowledge that it may be months before their own families, friends, colleagues, as well as their patients, receive this protection from the virus that has killed more than 300,000 Americans.
“It’s going to take a while for us to get the country vaccinated, it’s going to take a while to get herd immunity,” said Florencia Polite, chief of general obstetrics and gynecology at Penn Medicine, who received her dose Wednesday night. “But this is the beginning, to me, of us turning the corner for 2021.”
Citywide, almost 950 people are hospitalized due to COVID-19, and 121 are on ventilators.
Health departments and hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania received more than 187,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine this week. The ceremony and celebration that accompanied the first doses distributed Monday have already become an assembly-line routine of alcohol swabs and needle pricks that will continue for some time, as everyone needs two shots, administered three weeks apart. Einstein planned to vaccinate 100 Wednesday, while Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Center City campus and Temple University Hospital’s North Philadelphia campus each expected to inoculate about 250 workers.
On a small auditorium’s stage at Temple University Hospital’s main campus in North Philadelphia, nurses thawed vials of the ultra-chilled Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, injected them with saline solution, and carefully upended each vial 10 times to combine the materials, before passing them along to be injected.
Nurse Stacy Delaney said that when she left for work Wednesday morning her mother reminded her of the seventh-grade history project Delaney did on Jonas Salk, who created one of the first successful polio vaccines.
“My mom’s mother was affected by polio,” she said. “This morning she reminded me of that. She said: ‘Look where we came from. We’re making history.’ ”
An Einstein technician vaccinated Wednesday, Antoine Miller, described the relief he felt when it entered his arm.
“I felt like it’s over with,” he said of the anxiety that has kept him up at night.
The 38-year-old works closely with COVID-19 patients, including turning them over to help their breathing, and doing chest compressions when they go into cardiac arrest.
At Jefferson’s Center City campus, staffers waited for a short time in an auditorium after getting the vaccine to ensure they didn’t suffer any allergic reactions. After receiving her shot, Elissa Harmon, 57, a nurse on a medical ICU unit, pointed out that even medical professionals can dread needles.
“I’m a chicken with the needles,” she said, adding that she coped by taking deep breaths and looking away as she was injected. “I can give a needle with no problem, but I don’t want to be on the other end.”
Once it was clear she had no ill effects from the vaccine, she went back to the ICU, where about half the patients on her floor had COVID-19.
Keeping track of those who received doses will require a massive record-keeping effort to ensure vaccine distribution is fair, efficient, and turning the tide of the pandemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “interim playbook” says jurisdictions will be required to report vaccine-related data every 24 hours.
On Wednesday, though, a comprehensive tally of how Philadelphia’s 13,650 vaccine doses were being distributed among city hospitals wasn’t available.
“We’re hoping to get data on vaccine administration posted to the city’s COVID website on the vaccines page, but it’s not ready yet,” said James Garrow, a city health department spokesperson.
Health professionals know that receiving the vaccine won’t change many things about life in a pandemic. Harmon, for instance, explained that she will continue to carefully follow social distancing guidelines and mask recommendations. She won’t even go into stores for Christmas shopping. While the vaccine has been 95% effective in preventing symptomatic disease, it’s not yet known whether it can stop asymptomatic transmission. So even people who are vaccinated must continue taking precautions.
But the vaccine’s immediate impact will be to keep health-care workers on the job helping patients, rather than out sick themselves, or quarantining after exposure to the virus.
“That’s part of why there’s this push for the frontline health-care workers to be vaccinated,” said Erica Harris, 39, an emergency-room doctor at Einstein. “So that we don’t have shortages as cases surge. It’s not just the physical number of beds in the hospital. It’s having people who are there to staff those beds.”
About 75% of the patients Harris sees are either COVID-19 positive or suspected of having the virus, she said, and the ER has repeatedly been overwhelmed by patients when there are no rooms elsewhere in the hospital for them. Her research on the testing that went into the vaccine gave her confidence despite how new it is, she said.
“I’ve seen what COVID does, so I’m not too keen on getting it,” said Harris, whose heart condition puts her at higher risk of serious complications from infection.
Nearly three-quarters of workers at Jefferson and Einstein are willing to be vaccinated, said hospital officials, who are encouraging but not requiring the shots.
Charlene Grier, a nurse preparing injections at Temple, said, “I trust the vaccine, but I’m also still human, and a little cautious.”
She added, “I’m going to get it.”
The health-care workers getting vaccinated hope they’ll be an example to wary colleagues, and to patients too.
Black Americans tend to be more skeptical about the vaccine, an attitude shaped, researchers say, in large part because of a history of mistreatment by the medical profession.
Polite, a Black Philadelphia native who lives in Mount Airy, said that was a critical reason she wanted to be vaccinated.
“I really feel like it’s incredibly important for us to address the hesitancy of the Black community,” she said. “There’s something to be said for us as providers to go first in this situation where we don’t know everything.”
She has been reaching out to her own family, she said, letting them know she is getting vaccinated and trusts the science behind the vaccine.
“We have to be aggressive, assertive,” she said, “and quite frankly, get ahead of this.”
Staff writer Marie McCullough contributed to this article.