CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa administers state's first COVID-19 vaccine

'It's got to start somewhere'

Staff nurse Rachel Lewis on Monday administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to emergency room nurse David Conway
Staff nurse Rachel Lewis on Monday administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to emergency room nurse David Conway at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. Conway, who works with COVID-19 patients on a daily basis, was the first individual in Iowa to receive the vaccine since its emergency approval late Friday. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — In a room 12 stories above the emergency department where he has been caring for COVID-19 patients over the last nine months, David Conway, 39, Monday morning became the first person in Iowa to receive a vaccine for the novel coronavirus since its emergency authorization Friday.

Conway, a University of Iowa Health Care emergency department nurse for four years, said he didn’t hesitate when asked if he’d be willing to get the vaccine on day one on the UI’s medical campus

“Of course I am,” Conway said, seconds before choosing his left arm and holding still while a nurse administered the shot and cameras clicked for the historic occasion.

“How’d it feel?” Vice President for Medical Affairs Brooks Jackson asked after the injection.

“Excellent,” Conway said, airing hope that his shot marked — along with many others across the nation Monday morning — the beginning of the end of a devastating period in American and world history. “It’s got to start somewhere.”

» VACCINE QUESTIONS: When can you get the vaccine? And other questions answered for Iowans

The UI has played several pivotal roles in addressing the fast-spreading deadly coronavirus that to date has taken 1.6 million lives globally and nearly 300,000 in the United States. The country has reported more infections than any other nation, at 16.3 million, as of Monday. Iowa has accumulated 277,775 of that total and confirmed 3,273 COVID-19 deaths.

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Well before the virus arrived on U.S. soil, UIHC coronavirus expert Stanley Perlman was laying the groundwork for a future vaccine with his research. And then UI Health Care was among the international slate of trial sites for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which became the first approved late Friday and arrived on UIHC’s doorstep Monday by FedEx.

UIHC administrators expect weekly shipments of vaccine to inoculate as many of their 17,000-some employees as are willing — although UIHC Chief Executive Officer Suresh Gunasekaran said the campus doesn’t know just how many doses it will get each week.

“We get told, at this time, one week ahead of time,” he said. “So we will know at the end of this week how much we’re getting next week.”

Monday’s first shipment contained 975 doses, all of which will be distributed over the coming week in expectation enough will be available in three weeks for the second dose all patients require for the expected 95-percent efficacy.

As of 10:30 a.m. Monday, 17 UIHC employees had received their first dose. The hope was to vaccinate 130 to 170 UIHC workers Monday, including a group of administrators hoping to set an example for anyone with concerns about the vaccine, which has been deemed safe but does come with standard side effects — like a sore arm and low-grade fever for a short period of time.

Gunasekaran was among those who got the shot as a show of confidence in the vaccine.

“This is a historic moment to change the course of the pandemic,” he said. “And we are proud of our role as leaders in this process.”

Also getting the vaccine Monday was UIHC Chief Pharmacy Officer Michael Brownlee, who spelled out for The Gazette the complicated timing for administering this specific vaccine, which must be stored at extreme cold.

He said the hospital can keep vials outside the ultra deep freeze in a refrigerator for five days before they go bad. Once they’re out of the refrigerator, though, providers have two hours to give the shots. Additionally, once providers reconstitute the vaccine — or put saline in it — they have six hours to use it.

“So that timing is really tight,” he said.

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The university has broken down its thousands of employees into four groups for vaccine prioritization — starting with front-line workers, those providing direct care to COVID-19 patients like in the emergency room and intensive care units.

Within those units, Brownlee said, administrators and directors separated out those who already had contracted COVID-19 and those participating in the vaccine trial in identifying who should get inoculated first. Anyone on UIHC payrolls is included in its vaccination plan — including retirees who’ve come back to help.

Traveling nurses — those working for an agency but not UIHC employees — aren’t part of its vaccination plan. Nor are family members of UIHC employees.

The campus is allowing its workers to opt out and some have, according to Brownlee.

“They either said they weren’t ready right now, they might want to defer until later,” he said.

But plenty are ready, based on a UIHC employee survey that last week found 85 percent of the 12,000 respondents “are willing to receive the vaccine when they are offered it.”

‘So happy today’

Seth Jackson was among the UIHC front line workers who jumped at the chance to get a first dose — having spent the last six-plus months working as a medical ICU nurse specializing in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, which serves as a form of life support for patients with failing lungs or heart.

“It’s been very difficult, not physically but more emotionally for me,” he said. “Having to do Zoom end-of-life calls with family who can’t be available or cannot be in person. … It’s been difficult seeing the suffering that COVID brings and just the unrelenting nature of it and the unpredictability of it.”

Moments after getting the vaccine Monday, Jackson said, “I am just so happy today.”

Because he recently welcomed a two-month-premature daughter into his family, he’s been sticking strictly to work and home — ordering groceries and takeout online and wearing face coverings obsessively.

So even after he completes his two-dose vaccination course, Jackson said he’ll keep up his safety protocols as is being urged by researchers.

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“And I want to set a good example for my neighbors and my loved ones and my family,” he said.

Nathaniel Shekem also accepted the invitation to get vaccinated. As a physician assistant in the emergency department, Shekem sees COVID-19 patients daily and worked through early unknowns about the virus by being diligent about his personal protective gear.

“I think that there really must be something to mask wearing,” he said. “I don’t even think I’ve had a cold since February.”

After his vaccination, Shekem called it a “piece of cake” comparable to a typical flu shot.

“I felt very comfortable going into it, just knowing that so many people that are much smarter than I am have given it the go-ahead,” he said, adding, “I was excited to be part of this first day. I’m a big proponent of science, and when I got the opportunity to come today, I kind of jumped all over it. It will be exciting to talk about this years down the road.”

Because federal guidance recommends vaccinating health care workers and those in long-term care facilities first, followed by other front-line workers and high-risk individuals, the rest of the public could have to wait months for a vaccine to become widely available.

That means everyone — like Jackson — is being advised to still avoid gatherings, wear face coverings and wash hands frequently, Gunasekaran said.

On the heels of the recently approved Pfizer vaccine is one produced by Moderna, on track for Food and Drug Administration consideration later this week.

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Should that receive emergency use approval also, Gunasekaran said UIHC hopes to start administering it as well.

‘Feeling pretty good’

Patricia Winokur, UIHC’s executive dean of the Carver College of Medicine and principal investigator of UI’s portion of the Pfizer clinical trial, also received the vaccine Monday and touted the monumental nature of it.

“This is going to be one you read about in history books,” she said.

Thanks to Iowans’ efforts to limit gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday, Gunasekaran said UIHC was doing better in coping with COVID-19 care and capacity than it has in weeks. Where UIHC had about 100 COVID-19 inpatients mid-November, it was reporting 46 Monday.

“We’re at a very manageable level,” he said. “In fact, we are at the best levels that we’ve been — relative to COVID and cases that we’ve seen — since October. So we’re feeling pretty good right now.”

UIHC was the first in Iowa to start seeing COVID-19 patients in March, the first to roll out specific therapies, the first to enroll vaccine-trial participants, and now the first to administer the long-awaited shots.

“This has been somewhat of an endless, tiring pandemic that really hasn’t given us too many things to be optimistic about honestly,” Gunasekaran said. “Until now.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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