‘An overwhelming day’ as health care workers receive Utah’s first doses of COVID-19 vaccine

Receiving the vaccine, one nurse said, ‘is going to help me treat my patients with more kindness and hope.’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nurse Sophie Woodbury, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, and nurses Monte Roberts, Amanda Vicchrilli and William Brunt pose for a photo after the first Covid-19 vaccines were administered to the four nurses at LDS Hospital, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

Intensive care unit nurse Christy Mulder became the first Utahn to receive a shot of COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, as health care workers were at the front of the line for the state’s first shipments.

“It’s an overwhelming day today,” Mulder told reporters in a video news conference after she got the shot at University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. “Lots of emotions. Excitement, joy. I’m still trying to process it all.”

Later Tuesday, four nurses at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City received that facility’s first doses.

Nurse Monte Roberts, his voice breaking with emotion, said he had 100% faith in the vaccine. “My faith is the faith of research,” Roberts said at LDS Hospital. The people who developed the vaccine, he said, “are what keeps me safe, keeps my patients safe, and keeps my family safe.”

By 4 p.m., Intermountain Healthcare spokesman Jess Gomez said, more than 90 front-line workers at LDS Hospital had been given the vaccine.

Mulder said that while working in the ICU during the pandemic, “it’s painful to see patients suffering for so long.” There’s always suffering in intensive care, she said, but “with COVID-19, it just feels so long. That weight feels heavier and heavier over time.”

Seeing the vaccine roll out, Mulder said, “really is overwhelming. It’s the beginning of an end, and that’s really helpful. … It feels like a weight lifted off.”

‘One of the best Christmas presents’

Diana Navarette, a registered nurse who works with Mulder in the University Hospital ICU, said, “it’s been a rough couple of months” caring for COVID-19 patients. The vaccine, she said, is “like a light at the end of a tunnel.”

Maria Cuevas, an environmental services worker at the hospital, agreed. “We’re not at the end of the tunnel yet, but we’re getting there.”

”I always knew I was going to be getting the vaccine. This is just sooner rather than later,” said Brad Thompson, a respiratory therapist. “I thought I would lead by example and get it first. I hope people will follow in our footsteps.”

Dr. Stephen Hartsell said he was “thankful” to be one of the first five people at University Hospital to receive the vaccine. ”To see a vaccine produced this fast and in our arms is just amazing,” he said, calling the vaccine “one of the best Christmas presents we’ve ever received.”

Hartsell said he and his colleagues hope to be an example, both to other health care workers and the public at large. “Hopefully, this will encourage them to step up, get in line, and get the immunization,” he said.

Ninety minutes later, and a few miles west of University Hospital, mask-wearing reporters and TV cameras observed as nurse Julie Nelson laid out a syringe and an adhesive bandage, applied an alcohol wipe to a bicep of each of the four Intermountain nurses, quickly jabbed the needle and stuck the bandage on the injection site.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julie Nelson administers the Covid-19 vaccine to Amanda Vicchrilli, at LDS Hospital, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

Nelson expertly performed the process for Roberts, Andrea Vicchrilli, William Brunt and Sophia Woodbury. Vicchrilli called the moment important, but from a practical angle, she said, “to be honest, it was the easiest vaccination I’ve ever had.”

Woodbury said she has worried about how the ongoing pandemic has affected her outlook as a nurse — and getting the vaccine will help with that.

“There’s a lot of sick people, and we’re doing our best to take care of them, but it’s also very mentally draining,” Woodbury said. Receiving the vaccine, she added, “is going to help me treat my patients with more kindness and hope.”

Starting at hospitals

Kavish Choudhary, senior director of the University of Utah Health Pharmacy, said his staff had “a bit of a whirlwind morning” Tuesday. The pharmacy got a call before 7 a.m. Tuesday, alerting it that the shipment had arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport.

The shipment reached University Hospital within an hour, and pharmacy staff called a representative from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to oversee the unboxing, Choudhary said.

The packages were removed from their shipping box, which is insulated and packed with dry ice to keep the vaccine at 95 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, to the hospital’s supercold refrigerator. Those had to sit for two hours before staff could start thawing the vaccine to be administered. The first five recipients at University Hospital got their shots around 11:30 a.m.

“The goal is to vaccinate our entire health care team,” said Dr. Andy Pavia, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health. That isn’t just doctors and nurses, but everyone working at the hospital, particularly those in areas with daily exposure to COVID-19 patients.

University Hospital aims to vaccinate 500 workers a day, once the process gets up to speed, Pavia said.

Some 23,400 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech were set to arrive in Utah Monday and Tuesday, in the first batch sent out to hospitals nationwide. In the first phase of Utah’s vaccine rollout, the first doses will be given to health care workers, followed by staff and residents at long-term care facilities.

University received three boxes of the vaccine Tuesday, with approximately 2,925 doses total. LDS and Utah Valley, both operated by Intermountain, each received two boxes Monday, about 1,950 doses each. Gomez said shipments arrived Tuesday at two more of the company’s hospitals: Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.

Those five hospitals were picked to get the Pfizer vaccine first, because they have heavy COVID-19 caseloads and because they have the supercold refrigeration units needed to store the Pfizer version.

More to come

More doses are expected in the coming weeks, both the Pfizer version and a similar vaccine by Moderna Inc., which is expected to receive Food and Drug Administration approval by the end of the week. The Moderna version can be stored in standard freezers, so it’s expected to be more readily transportable to rural areas that don’t have the supercold fridges.

The state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, was on hand for the vaccinations at LDS Hospital, and marveled at the speed of the vaccines’ development. After all, it’s been about a year, she said, since she and other Utah Department of Health officials were getting their first briefings from the CDC about a new coronavirus.

Dunn warned people not to let their guard down, with a reminder that most Utahns won’t receive the vaccine until summer. “What I’m begging the Utah population to do is to continue being vigilant throughout the holidays and through this winter, not complacent,” she said.

Dunn said she’s waiting in line for the vaccine with most other Utahns.

“I’d be happy to get it at any point, but I am going to wait for the masses, because I’m not at any risk,” Dunn told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Zoom calls are my life right now.”