CORONAVIRUS

'It's unbelievable'; COVID-19 vaccine arrives in Cedar Rapids

St. Luke's, Mercy inoculate hundreds of health care workers Tuesday

Pharmacist Alexis Thumann arrives from the pharmacy with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Mercy Medical Center in
Pharmacist Alexis Thumann arrives from the pharmacy with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. The vaccine was mixed with saline in the pharmacy and delivered to the McIntyre Patient Resource Center at Hall-Perrine Cancer Center as vaccination of employees began on Tuesday. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — With loud applause, and a sense of optimism not felt by some for months, the first vaccines against the novel coronavirus were administered in Cedar Rapids Tuesday.

Health care professionals and other front-line workers received some of the first doses of the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine in Eastern Iowa this week after shipments arrived at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital and Mercy Medical Center early Tuesday morning.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Dr. Julie Beard, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s and among the first to receive a vaccine.

“It almost feels like a dream that this happened in 2020. I don’t think I could have asked for more hope at the end of difficult and challenging year.”

The vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech were shipped across the country over the weekend after receiving federal emergency-use authorization late Friday. Tuesday’s shipment to the Cedar Rapids hospitals was the first allotment of the COVID-19 vaccine in Linn County, according to public health officials.

Mercy and St. Luke’s each received 975 doses of the vaccine, and began offering them within hours to those identified in first priority group of the state’s vaccination distribution plan. St. Luke’s officials said Tuesday they believe that hospital’s doses will be enough to last through Dec. 25.

“This is an important step to eventually stopping this pandemic,” said Tricia Kitzmann, community health manager at Linn County Public Health, in a statement.

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The first COVID-19 vaccines in Iowa arrived at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Monday morning, making their employees the first in the state — and some of the first nationwide — to receive the vaccine.

The shipment arrived at the loading dock of Mercy Medical Center at 7:20 a.m. A few hours later, at 10:30 a.m., the hospital inoculated its first employees — including Angie Hawker, a respiratory therapist who has worked directly with COVID-19 patients since the virus first appeared in Iowa in March.

Hawker was one of about 200 employees at Mercy vaccinated Tuesday.

“I’m feel very privileged,” she told The Gazette. “Not only is this going to protect me, but my family is going to be more protected and the patients I care for are going to be more protected.

“I feel good about that.”

After nine months caring for COVID-19 patients, the excitement among staff at both hospitals was palpable with cheers and applause erupting after the first shots were administered. Dr. Hassan Sajjad, Mercy’s medical intensive care unit director and a pulmonary and critical care specialist, asked a nurse to take his picture as he was receiving the vaccine.

As Beard and five others received the vaccine at St. Luke’s early Tuesday afternoon, she felt the moment was a surreal experience to end the year 2020.

She recalled the beginning of the pandemic, when she moved into the basement of her home for six weeks to avoid spreading the virus to her family.

She also thought back to early last month, when new positive cases were spiking across the state and driving a record number of hospitalizations.

At that time, Beard said there were instances when she couldn’t transfer patients because every area hospital was full.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “We were tired, we were burned out. We couldn’t catch a break, we couldn’t care for patients the way you wanted to. That was tough.”

But as of this week, she felt a sense of relief. The light at the end of the tunnel is visible, Beard said.

In other moments Tuesday, the positive event of the vaccine’s arrival also offered the opportunity for some to reflect on the losses this year.

As a respiratory therapist, Hawker is the one who helps COVID-19 patients who are struggling to breath and is there when they are placed on a ventilator. She also has been there when patients have died, with only the hospital staff with them.

“It’s the saddest thing,” Hawker said.

“It’s just sad. I don’t know any other word to describe it, knowing that the nurse and I are the only ones up there with them. But it’s much harder for their families.”

Working in the hospital through the pandemic, watching dozens of patients fight the virus and seeing other health care workers in full personal protective gear, Hawker said it all felt like a bad dream.

But Tuesday — though she’s not quite immune yet — Hawker said her mind was more at ease than it has been for months.

“I just feel hopeful — very hopeful this will be the start of getting this thing under control so we can live again,” she said.

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In addition to certain health care workers, residents and staff at long-term care facilities are within the first priority group for vaccine distribution, though no official has stated when those doses would be made available to them.

According to Linn County Public Health, vaccination of this population is expected to take place “in the coming weeks.”

More than 90 percent of long-term care facilities in Linn County have signed up with the Long Term Care Pharmacy Partnership Program, a national management program created by federal officials to facilitate on-site COVID-19 vaccines for these settings.

Retail pharmacies CVS and Walgreens will be among those commercial partners that may offer the vaccine locally.

Local officials said the remaining long-term care facilities not enrolled in the federal program are working with the county public health agency to “ensure vaccines allocated to Linn County during phase 1a are available to their residents.”

To date, 15 long-term care facilities in Linn County have reported an outbreak within its buildings, resulting in the infections of more than 500 residents since March. More than 100 long-term care residents have died due to COVID-19 complications.

Eighty-six percent of total COVID-19 deaths in Linn County are among those aged 65 and older.

It is expected to take months before there’s enough vaccines available to administer to all priority populations. Because of that, local public health officials emphasized the importance of continued practice of public health safety measures.

“While vaccines are an important tool to control the pandemic, we also need to stay vigilant in wearing masks, washing our hands and watching our distance until the pandemic is over,” Kitzmann said in a statement.

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“These are important to continue even after receiving the vaccine. We have many more months ahead of us before we can reach herd immunity.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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