Alexandria, La. — Rapides Regional Medical Center began vaccinating frontline healthcare workers today with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 10.

“This is probably the most historic cooperation between our government and private industry for the greater good, for public health that has ever happened,” said Carol Wells, PharmD, Rapides Regional Medical Center Pharmacy Director. “Those of us who took the polio vaccine or the smallpox vaccine, can testify to how historic it is. Those are diseases that have been effectively eradicated. With this vaccine, COVID-19 may follow.”

The vaccine, which requires two separate vaccinations given approximately 21 days apart, is being described by hospitals across the country as “the best way” to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We will receive 425 vaccine doses in our first allotment as a Tier 1 hospital,” said Theresa Hood, RNC, BSN, MS, Director of Education and Employee Health. “Those vaccines will go first to employees and physicians providing direct patient care to COVID positive patients.”

The second half of RRMC’s first allotment will arrive next week. Hospitals around the country received a certain number of vaccines in their first shipments based on guidance provided by the Louisiana Department of Health and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our frontline employees have been caring for COVID patients since March,” said Barbara Griffin, MSN, RN, NE-BC, Chief Nursing Officer. “They have worked through the first wave, the second wave and now this third wave. This vaccine provides them with much needed protection from the virus and a welcome boost in morale as we now have hope that the end of this pandemic is in sight.”

Keith Ashby, M.D., TeamHealth Medical Director at Rapides Regional Medical Center, plans to receive the vaccine.

“As of today, we do not have a curative therapy for COVID,” Dr. Ashby said. “True curative treatment does not exist. Employees and healthcare workers are putting themselves at risk. At this time, the only alternative is to be proactive and take the vaccine.”

As the vaccine becomes available, healthcare experts want to make sure employees and the general public have all the information they need when deciding whether or not to take the vaccine.

“This vaccine is not unlike other vaccines we’ve used before,” Wells said. “It is fragile and for that reason, it must be kept in ultra-cold conditions until ready to use. We will receive shipments on dry ice, refrigerate it upon arrival and begin giving vaccinations immediately.

“This vaccine does not contain a live virus, so you cannot catch COVID from the vaccine. It is like other vaccines in that there may be mild, transient side effects.”

For that reason, employees who receive the vaccination will wait in a “vaccine monitoring area” for 15 minutes following the injection to make sure there are no adverse reactions. Employees must also agree to return 21 days later for the 2nd injection.

“When you sign up and say you want to receive the vaccine, you’re agreeing that in 21 days, you will return for the 2nd dose,” Wells said. “From what we’ve seen so far, the first dose gives you 20 percent immunity but it takes that 2nd dose to get you to approximately 95% immunity.”

But even after the vaccination, masks are still recommended. At RRMC, masks are still required of all employees and visitors.

“Remember, this vaccination is approximately 95% effective,” Wells said. “Think of it like your seasonal flu vaccine. You get that vaccine and there’s still a possibility you may get the flu. You are not 100% protected, so there is always a window where you may become infected. But it’s a very small window.”

Vaccines typically take up to 73 months from inception to approval/distribution. However, under Operation Warp Speed, the COVID-19 vaccination took less than a year. This time, the process was expedited in part because of the government’s commitment and financial backing.

 “The vaccine is not a get-out-of-jail free card,” said Dr. Ashby. “It protects you from the virus and should eliminate you as a threat to those you love. It’s another means of us trying to get back to normal.”

Praveen Budde, M.D., and Ashley Marx, RN, were two of the first to receive the COVID vaccine at Rapides Regional Medical Center.

“I am a strong supporter of vaccination,” Dr. Budde said. “Science and data have proven this is the best way to fight this disease. By taking this vaccine, I’m not just protecting myself, but I’m also protecting my family and our community. I’m privileged to be able to receive the vaccine today.”

Marx, who has worked in the RRMC Emergency Department for 2½ years, was undecided about taking the vaccine.

“I have given it a lot of thought and I did a lot of my own research,” Marx said. “I talked to physicians here who I trust and who are very well researched. I read scientific peer-reviewed journals. And I decided that at some point I have to stop wishing things would go back to normal and be part of the solution.”

Approximately 90 employees received their first vaccine dose today. And, given the time of year, it could be looked at as an early holiday gift.

“This vaccine means it’s the beginning of the end of COVID,” said David Rhodes, M.D., RRMC Chief Medical Officer. “Certainly, it is a historic moment and a reason to celebrate modern medicine and an expectation of a return to some semblance of normal as we head into 2021.”

tags: covid-19