As she stood in the halls of Charleston Area Medical Center Memorial Hospital on Tuesday, nurse Kelly Harrison felt optimistic and hopeful for the first time since March.
Harrison is the nurse manager at CAMC Memorial’s COVID-19 unit. On Tuesday, she was one of the first of 50 employees in the hospital system to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
“I feel hopeful. I do, and I think it’s the first time in a while,” Harrison said, minutes after receiving the vaccine. “After months of hearing about it, the vaccine is here and it’s real and this is all really happening.”
Harrison and her colleagues have spent the past 10 months caring for COVID-19 patients and witnessing the harsh reality of this pandemic. In September, that reality literally hit home, as Harrison, her son and her husband contracted the virus.
Harrison said she was back at the hospital working in 17 days, but it took six weeks until she really felt like herself again. She regularly would feel light-headed and fatigued, with a recurring cough. It wasn’t comfortable, she said.
“It was really scary. You see, you know at work, what [COVID-19] could do to people, and then we were those people,” Harrison said. “We were all fine in the end, thankfully, but it was horrible. You just don’t know what’s going to happen one day to the next; it affects everyone differently.”
As thousands of health care workers like Harrison have been exposed to or fallen ill with COVID-19 in recent months, hospitals and medical centers have suffered staffing shortages while hospitalizations for COVID-19 increase.
“When those in the workforce get sick, it’s more work for everyone, and less people we can help sometimes because of less resources,” Harrison said.
Dr. Adam Crawford, director of the Emergency Department at CAMC and who also got the vaccine Tuesday, said this is partially why it’s critical for front-line workers to get vaccinated. Over the past several weeks, COVID-19 has continued to dramatically increase in West Virginia and across the country.
As more people contract and spread the virus, statistically more people will need treatment at a hospital. On Tuesday, West Virginia had a record-breaking 774 people in the hospital for COVID-19 treatment, 202 of which — also a record — were receiving care in an intensive care unit.
“The health care system in general can’t take much more. Hospital capacity has been a critical issue, especially recently, and we need to be vigilant of that,” Crawford said. “The big thing [about the vaccine] is it is bringing hope. I hope this gets us a step closer to the end, but one big challenge is going to be keeping and maintaining a healthy workforce.”
West Virginia also recorded 31 COVID-19-related deaths on Tuesday, a one-day high that brought total deaths up to 1,012.
As cases continue to come in from potential Thanksgiving exposures, and as some might choose to gather for holidays in December despite health experts urging not to, the COVID-19 spike could continue for weeks.
“Those that can, if they get the vaccine now, we can help to maybe lessen the damage that could be to come,” Harrison said.
Although some have expressed concerns about taking the vaccine, Crawford said people should trust that the Food and Drug Administration — and doctors, like him — wouldn’t vouch for something unsafe.
“The science here is good, and all indicators point to it being safe,” Crawford said. “Taking the risk of getting COVID-19 is not the way to go here. For me, it’s a no-brainer — the vaccine is, certainly, the safer alternative.”
Last week, the Pfizer vaccine was the first to be approved for distribution by the FDA. It was delivered to West Virginia on Monday.
According to the FDA, there have not been any severe side effects reported in trials for the Pfizer vaccines. The most common side effects include irritation at the point of injection, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever, and were more common in younger populations.
As of Tuesday, all 16,575 doses of the Pfizer vaccine — the state’s entire first order and the maximum weekly allowed — were delivered to five hubs across West Virginia, said Maj. Holli Nelson, public information officer for the West Virginia National Guard.
For mRNA vaccines — like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, which could be approved by the FDA in coming days — patients must receive two doses, weeks apart.
Per the state’s vaccine distribution plan and federal guidelines, critical-care workers who interact directly with COVID-19 patients, such as Harrison and Crawford, will be among the first to receive vaccines, along with those in long-term care facilities.
Over the next few months, as vaccine supplies increase and potentially different vaccines are approved, distribution will expand in phases until eventually being available to the general public in the spring.
In the meantime, Harrison and Crawford both said it’s incredibly important that everyone — vaccinated or not — continues to practice mitigation efforts, such as mask wearing and social distancing, to slow the spread of the virus during what’s estimated to be a harsh winter.
“We still have many people in the ICU, more patients come in every day,” Harrison said. “This isn’t over. It will take time for most people to get the vaccine. We need to do what we can in the meantime to keep everyone safe.”