WASHINGTON (AFP) – As an anaesthesiologist in a slammed emergency department, Raymond Pla has to handle Covid patients’ ventilators, one of the riskiest jobs in the pandemic.
On Monday he was one of five frontline workers at George Washington University Hospital to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
A single word captured what it meant to him: “Hope.”
The doctor might have felt excited to be among the first in the world to get injected with molecules of synthetic messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), the cutting-edge technology proven to be 95 per cent effective in preventing Covid-19.
But given the coronavirus’ stark toll – 300,000 fatalities in the United States (US) alone – that just didn’t feel right.
“Excitement, in my personal view, doesn’t give the appropriate amount of deference and respect and honour to the sacrifice of my colleagues in health care, some of whom have gotten sick, some of whom have died,” said the visibly emotional 52-year-old.
A distant light is glimmering at the end of the tunnel, but in the spring the situation appeared bleak to inundated healthcare workers like Pla: “I didn’t have a lot of hope back then there would be a vaccine by the end of the year.”
Pla and his colleagues said they felt honoured as the first recipients, a group chosen through an algorithm that assessed risk levels.
They also want to use their platforms to encourage others to follow their lead.
Shylee Stewart, a 26-year-old registered nurse in the labour and delivery department, said the vaccine was “beneficial” given how many Covid-positive patients with unknown status come through, adding that most of the nurses in her department planned to get shots. She encouraged ordinary people to “do your research; make sure you make the right decision for yourself.”
“Nine times out of 10, that decision is to get vaccinated,” she said. Her message comes at a time of growing vaccine scepticism, not only in the US but across much of the developed world. A new poll by NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist College found that 61 per cent of Americans say they’ll choose to get the coronavirus vaccine if it is made available, against 32 per cent who said they wouldn’t.
An unmasked anti-vaxxer heckler interrupted Monday’s press interviews with those being vaccinated, but the surveys show that overall national confidence is increasing, highlighting the importance of such events.
Pla, a Black physician, said he felt an added level of responsibility toward his community and other racial minorities, who have been let down by a history of unethical medical research, along with medicine’s institutional racism that persists today.
He said it would be vital to be “going out into the community and spreading the word” in the weeks and months ahead.
Healthcare workers worldwide were dealt a brutal year, and while the vaccine should mark a turning point in the long fight, it’s not yet time to let loose, said emergency doctor Sean Chester.
“It’s been a long time coming – we’ve been through a lot, as healthcare workers but also as Americans. You know, we’ve really been through the wringer with Covid,” the 32-year-old said, adding that everyone was “anxious” and “kind of burned out.” Chester said he was now starting to see as many cases as he did in spring.
“Even though I’m getting the vaccine, I’m not going to change my social distancing, I’m not going to stop using the PPE (personal protective equipment),” he said, adding he had cancelled his Thanksgiving and Christmas travel plans because of the grim winter surge.
Current research suggests that while the vaccines will prevent illness, they might not eliminate the possibility that people could still carry the virus and spread it to others.