Christine Cummings, a registered nurse who works at Bethesda East, was the among the first local frontline workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, from Katie Van Lennep, director of professional development at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Charles Elmore
The struggle against COVID-19 is far from over, but the prick of a vaccine needle in her arm delivered a dose of relief and hope for registered nurse Christine Cummings.
“It feels good to be reaching this milestone,” said Cummings, who works with coronavirus patients at Bethesda East Hospital in Boynton Beach. “It was a brutal year.”
Her shot on Dec. 28 put her among the first of about 1,600 vaccinations expected over the course of a week for employees at Boca Raton Regional and Bethesda hospitals, both part of the Baptist Health system.
For nearly a year, such workers have lived with the risk they might get sick, and infect others around them, as they provide frontline care. More than 1,700 U.S. health care workers have died from the coronavirus, according to a nurses union’s report in September. Polls show close to half of Americans express reluctance to stand at the front of the line to receive vaccines, but Cummings said she was ready for a chance to help bring the virus under control.
Think about what that would mean, she said.
“We can all hug our grandparents again,” she said.
Senior facilities next up
Residents in long-term care centers are getting priority attention too. As the shots become available to more people, health officials are grappling with public apprehension about vaccines that arrived in the fast lane by historical standards. Take the fear that the vaccine itself can spread the virus.
“The vaccine cannot give you COVID-19,” said Sara Elizabeth Hamm, who lives in Highland Beach and is chief clinical and public health officer for Lifespace Communities. She has been talking to residents in several of the company’s communities, including Harbour’s Edge in Delray Beach.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines give “our cells instructions for how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the virus,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is designed to spur the body to make antibodies to fight the virus. Trials found both vaccines effective 94% to 95% of the time.
In the meantime, measures such as masks, distancing and hand-washing will still be needed for months to come, until enough people get vaccinated, Hamm said.
She acknowledges some “vaccine hesitation” out there as the fast-tracked program rolls out in a bid to stop the worst pandemic in a century and end the loneliness of protective isolation for many seniors.
About 44% of Americans responding to an ABC News/Ipsos poll in December said they would prefer not to get the shot until more is known about safety and effectiveness; 15% said they’d refuse it entirely.
Ron Schwartz, president of the resident council at Harbour’s Edge, said he believes most of his neighbors are ready to embrace the shots.
“Most of us wish there had been more testing and experience with the vaccines,” Schwartz said. “But we think the benefits will outweigh the risks.”
The rollout has been hampered by delivery delays, but at least a portion of the more than 300 residents at Harbour’s Edge are expected to be offered shots in January.
At Abbey Delray, a senior community of 245 residents, shots were initially scheduled to begin Dec. 22 for some residents receiving care in health centers, administrators said. That was pushed back by more than a week.
More than 850 people in Palm Beach County received at least the first of two vaccination shots by Dec. 21, joining more than 43,000 across Florida, state records show.
Trials showed side effects common to many vaccines, including fatigue, headache, chills, fever and pain and redness in the injection area, Hamm said. But they tend to last only a day or two, she said.
“Side effects mean the vaccine is doing its job, and the body is making antibodies,” she said in a presentation based on information from the Society for Post-Acute Care and Long-Term Care Medicine. She called such effects “normal, common and expected.”
She directly addressed worries that the first people receiving vaccinations are “guinea pigs” and the process was “rushed.”
She said “emergency use authorization” did speed up the usual timetable to make vaccines available the same year the pandemic started, but “no steps were skipped” in developing and testing.
More than 335,000 deaths nationally have been attributed to COVID-19, including more than 1,800 in Palm Beach County. About 42% of the county’s deaths have occurred among residents and staff at long-term care facilities. That is why such residents are so high on the priority list for shots now.
Many of those residents have lived through some of the toughest challenges the world can throw at them, said Schwartz from Harbour’s Edge.
“Our residents have been through wars, personal tragedies and many stressful events,” he said. “The result is that they have learned to roll with the punches.”
Some are in their 70s, 80s or 90s, with a few older than 100, he said. The virus has been “scary and upsetting” to many, he said, and his sense is most are prepared to do what it takes for a chance to end the pandemic.
“I think most residents are anxiously awaiting the vaccine,” Schwartz said. “I would be surprised if many of our residents will pass on the chance to be vaccinated.”
One frustration seniors have aired is that even with the virus surging, many people still seem to have no urgency about wearing masks or practicing social distancing to control the spread until vaccines have a chance to work.
“Quite a few residents expressed concern about the lack of enforcement regarding wearing masks,” Schwartz said. “I know of no resident here who would leave their apartment unmasked, so we are shocked and frightened when we have to leave our community for necessary appointments.”
That threatens to prolong the suffering for everybody, he said.
“We are looking forward to once again meeting our friends and family without restrictions,” Schwartz said.
Hamm said, “The more people we vaccinate, the less likely we are to continue this vicious cycle and finally begin to establish our ‘new normal’ in the United States.”
To learn more about COVID-19 vaccines: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/how-they-work.html.