‘Our first glimmer of hope’: Healthcare workers reflect on a devastating year and a brighter future as they get the first COVID-19 shots

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Dr. Prakash Patel, a pulmonologist at Tristar StoneCrest Medical Centre, takes a selfie with a nurse after getting his COVID-19 vaccine. Rob Lindsay
  • Frontline healthcare workers from seven of TriStar Health’s hospitals in middle Tennessee received some of the first COVID-19 vaccines in the state on Thursday.
  • Healthcare workers who got shots said they were excited, relieved, and hopeful that the availability of COVID-19 vaccines spelled the end of the pandemic.
  • TriStar, which is part of big hospital chain HCA Healthcare, received 2,925 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Thursday and gave out 550 doses.
  • For more stories like this, sign up here for Business Insider’s daily healthcare newsletter.

Hundreds of frontline nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers from Tennessee health system TriStar Health filed into an HCA Healthcare building in Nashville on Thursday to receive some of the first COVID-19 shots.

For the workers, the injections marked the beginning of the end of to a pandemic that’s pushed them and their hospitals to the breaking point as beds filled with sick patients. As nurses—clad in face shields and masks and sequestered in cubicles—gave the shots, healthcare workers took selfies to mark the occasion.

“This is a historic moment for all of us,” Dr. Prakash Patel, a pulmonologist who works in the ICU at TriStar StoneCrest Medical Centre, told Business Insider while waiting to get his shot. “I believe it’s the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration cleared Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. The first shipments of those vaccines were delivered this week to hospitals around the country.

The arrival of the first COVID-19 shots spelled hope for healthcare workers

A second vaccine is on the way, after the FDA cleared Moderna’s vaccine on Friday. The federal government plans to ship 5.9 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine within a week.

TriStar, which is part of for-profit hospital chain HCA Healthcare, received 2,925 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and gave out 550 shots on Thursday. For healthcare workers, the arrival of the vaccines spelled hope.

Salomey Agyemang, a critical care nurse at Southern Hills Medical Centre was one of the first on Thursday to get a shot. She said it felt like a “huge relief” after a year of witnessing her patients die alone, when the risk of COVID-19 exposure kept family members out of the hospital.

“It’s just hard,” she said. “It’s hard on the heart.”

Salomey Agyemang, a registered nurse at Southern Hills Medical Centre
Salomey Agyemang, a critical care nurse at Southern Hills Medical Centre, after getting a COVID-19 shot. Rob Lindsay

‘Our first glimmer of hope’

Christine Lunger, an ICU nurse and critical care director at Nashville’s TriStar Skyline Medical Centre said this year has been a tough, emotional one that none of the healthcare workers had ever seen before in their careers. She said she was “a little nervous” to get the shot, but added that she weighed the risks and benefits.

“It’s our first glimmer of hope that we’ve had in a very long fight against COVID-19,” she said after getting her vaccine. “I think we for the first time are seeing the finish line to the end of what has felt like a marathon.”

It was important to her to get the shot because her father’s at a high risk from the coronavirus, she added.

“If I can do something to take that step to end it, then I think that that was the right thing to do,” she said.

Some saw the shot as a chance to protect themselves and their communities

Dr. Sydney Hester, who has been on the frontlines fighting COVID-19 as an infectious disease physician at TriStar Centennial Medical Centre in Nashville, described getting the vaccine as “exhilarating” and painless.

Hester said that going into the field of infectious disease, she knew she’d be putting herself at risk, but she never imagined something like the pandemic.

The vaccine is “a chance to know that we are going to be not only protecting ourselves, but as the rest of the community gets the vaccine as able, that we can eventually move into a post-pandemic life.”

Some of the healthcare workers getting shots on Thursday said they wanted to set an example for others and dispel any fears that people may have about getting the vaccine.

“There’s a lot of misinformation going on and people are just scared,” Agyemang said. “I’ve studied this, I’ve done my research, I feel totally comfortable with it. I want to be one of the first people to do it so I can pass on that comfort to someone else, so that they will also be encouraged to go for it.”

Tennessee nurse gets COVID vaccine
Kimberly Pace, a nurse practitioner with TriStar Health, gets a COVID-19 vaccine. Rob Lindsay

Tennessee hospitals got 56,550 doses of Pfizer’s shot

COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Tennessee. The state’s coronavirus outbreak is now among the worst in the country. Tennessee reported 8,945 new COVID-19 cases and 177 new coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday, pushing the state’s total death toll to 5,845, according to the state department of health. A record 2,897 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19. The state received an initial shipment of 975 doses of Pfizer’s vaccines on Monday and kept them as an emergency back-up supply in case any vaccines shipped to hospitals arrived damaged. Later in the week, Tennessee received 56,550 doses and shipped them to 28 sites covering 74 hospitals. Those started arriving at hospitals on Thursday. TriStar allowed frontline healthcare workers from seven of its affiliated hospitals and medical centres in middle Tennessee to come to HCA Healthcare in Nashville to get a shot. TriStar prioritised workers based on their risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. Those most likely to be exposed to the disease will have access to the first doses over the next several days. They include nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, housekeepers and other caregivers who work in the emergency department, ICU or COVID units, said Jane Englebright, senior vice president and chief nurse executive for HCA Healthcare. Englebright, who received a shot and administered about a dozen vaccinations by the time of her interview with Business Insider, said HCA started preparing for its mass vaccination clinics as soon as it knew vaccines would be available in December.

Jane Englebright, chief nursing officer at HCA Healthcare
Jane Englebright, chief nursing officer at HCA Healthcare. Rob Lindsay

One nurse practitioner calls the shot ‘a blessing’

As part of that, the health system’s clinical education department provided “refresher training” for nurses like Englebright who aren’t normally at the patient’s bedside, since many of them are coming out to be vaccinators.

The health system also had somewhat of a trial-run in October when it provided COVID-19 testing for one of the 2020 presidential debates. “A lot of what you see is lessons we learned there, processes we used for that testing, that we were able to turn into what we’re doing now for vaccinations,” Englebright said.

Frontline workers were monitored for adverse reactions for 15 minutes after getting their shots. TriStar had a paramedic available in case of a negative reaction.

Kimberly Pace, a TriStar nurse practitioner, said getting the “was a little scary” because it’s new, but she said she’s hopeful it will help.

“I think that the majority of us as providers, we are a little bit scared, because it’s a new thing, but we all have faith that this is going to give us some hope and start to bring this pandemic to a little bit of an end. As much as we’ve seen over the past several months, with unnecessary sickness and lives lost, this is truly a blessing,” Pace said.