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Dr. Kishore K. Challa

Dr. Kishore Challa in his office at Thomas Memorial Hospital.

Since March, Dr. Kishore Challa has referred to himself and other healthcare workers as “COVID-19 warriors.”

Having recently become the first physician in West Virginia to receive the Pfizer vaccine, Challa is switching modifiers.

“I call myself now a ‘vaccine warrior,’” the Thomas Health Systems cardiologist said. “Basically as a vaccine warrior, you’re telling patients and people that the vaccine is good for you. You’re reassuring them.”

Like many doctors, he’s spent the last 10 months watching the pandemic tear apart families.

“When you see someone, 40, 45 years old, dying when they had nothing wrong before, or done nothing wrong, it hurts your heart,” said Challa, president of the state Board of Medicine. “It’s not easy, no.”

The vaccine’s arrival brings a sense of hope, but people still should wear facemasks, maintain distance from one another, avoid gatherings and wash their hands frequently, Challa said.

“The only thing that’s changed is the morale,” Challa said. “I don’t think anyone should give in to a false sense of security. This isn’t over by any means.”

Healthcare workers must act as ambassadors for vaccine distribution, reminding people the vaccine is safe. Compared to the unknown risks of COVID-19, the vaccine should be the obvious preference, he said.

“Anything in medicine is a risk-benefit analysis,” Challa said. “Compared to the risks, the risks of [COVID-19], the benefit of taking the vaccine is worth it.”

Possible vaccine side effects include pain at the point of injection, fatigue, headaches, chills and muscle pain, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Challa said he experienced no side effects.

“I could have played golf the next day,” he said.

His colleague Dr. Mohammad Yousaf, with whom Challa shares an office, is scheduled to be vaccinated Monday. The physicians coordinated their vaccinations in case either suffered serious side effects.

The pandemic’s impact is not limited to the virus itself, Challa said. Some patients have delayed medical checks fearing they might contract the virus. Heart patients often are sicker when they do visit, he said.

A patient in her 50s died after contracting the virus and suffering extreme cardiovascular damage. While assessing her heart, Challa said, it appeared she’d suffered a heart attack, though she had not.

Nearly a fourth of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have been diagnosed with cardiovascular complications, which contribute to about 40% of all virus-related deaths, according to the American Heart Association.

The pandemic threatens to exacerbate other health concerns, such as drug overdoses, lung conditions and other woes, which might not be treated with the same urgency as before, Challa said.

“That’s the problem with COVID-19,” Challa said. “It’s denying help to non-COVID patients. In April, after the lockdown, there were sicker patients in the hospital. It’s taking away from regular patient care.”

Hospital and intensive-care beds are filling. COVID-19 patients occupy 12 of 16 ICU beds at Thomas, Challa said. Ordinarily, those beds would be filled by patients who’d suffered heart attacks, drug overdoses or lung illness, among other conditions, Challa said.

“Where are those people now?” Challa said. “I don’t know what’s happened to them.”

ICU space has been unavailable at times for heart attack patients. They instead have stayed in holding areas before being sent home, Challa said. The fight is not over, Challa added.

“It’s not done, no, not by any means. Continue being careful, continue maintaining social distance. Wear your mask. We all must,” Challa said. “It’s already been a year, and that one year, 2020, is already so unprecedented in the world. We’ll get through, but it’s not done yet.”

Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.