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Alaska News

‘The beginning of the end of the suffering’: COVID-19 vaccinations administered to frontline health workers

Employee health nurse Emily Schubert draws COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe to administer to respiratory therapist David Donahue. Health care workers began receiving vaccination for COVID-19 at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage on December 15, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

David Donahue, a respiratory therapist at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, sat next to nurse Emily Schubert on Tuesday morning and rolled up his sleeve.

This week marks a historic turning point in Alaska’s battle with COVID-19 as some of the state’s first vaccines were administered to frontline healthcare workers.

“The hopes and dreams are that we see enough people get the vaccine that the spread backs off,” Donahue said.

Donahue is one of the small number of people who have now begun the process for inoculation for the first time since the disease began infecting and killing Alaskans in March. The state on Sunday evening received its first shipment of vaccines from drugmakers Pfizer and BioNTech after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for emergency use last week.

Despite what Donahue characterized as a “skosh” of nervousness, he received the brief jab of vaccination in his left arm from Schubert, who planned to administer 10 vaccines to her colleagues on Tuesday. And with a short poke, it was all done.

“Didn’t even feel it, right?” Schubert remarked.

Employee health nurse Emily Schubert prepares a COVID-19 vaccine shot. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Donahue’s role as a respiratory therapist involves treating COVID-19 patients — in the emergency department, in the intensive care units, in the labor unit with mothers who have COVID-19 and are delivering babies, as well as treating children.

“We’re really one of the frontline crew,” he said.

All of the procedures the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deems highest risk for COVID-19 exposure are performed by respiratory therapists like Donahue, he said.

In the beginning of the pandemic, his stress about the virus was high. So much was unknown. But now, with personal protective equipment and improved procedures, they can cut back on risks. But that’s not the only benefit, he said.

Getting the vaccine, Donahue said, means he may be able to see some of his family who he’s had to avoid for much of the past year.

“I haven’t seen my grandma in nine months because I just didn’t feel like it was responsible to go over there,” Donahue said.

Respiratory therapist David Donahue laughs with employee health nurse Emily Schubert before Shubert gives Donahue a COVID-19 vaccine shot. (Marc Lester / ADN)

While Schubert, the nurse, is the one administering the vaccine, she hasn’t actually received it herself just yet. She wanted her colleagues on the frontlines to get it before her, she said. The hospital is going to keep giving out vaccinations this week and next, Schubert said.

After Donahue left with his first shot, Dr. Michelle Hensel, a medical director with the community health aide program, sat down for an inoculation that morning.

In her role with the health aide program, Hensel is helping to educate people statewide for broader vaccine distribution. The vaccines, she said, are “monumental,” for parts of rural Alaska.

“It’s so important because the resources are so limited in many of our rural areas, so this is really going to prevent disease and prevent the need for a higher level of care and hopefully prevent a lot of people from getting really sick or dying,” Hensel said.

Hensel insisted on holding up a sticker with a likeness of Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink, who has been at the forefront of the state’s COVID-19 response. The sticker read, “Find new ways to be strong together.”

“My little tribute to Dr. Zink,” Hensel said. “She’s amazing.”

Hensel said she was a bit worried — she actually got COVID-19 earlier in the year. It was a mild case. After a random test came back positive, Hensel said she isolated in the basement for 10 days and only felt a bit achey and fatigued on the seventh or eighth day, she said.

After the shot, her arm just felt a bit tight.

“I woke up this morning and thought, this is just a small piece of kind of the beginning of the end of the suffering that COVID has brought to our world.”

Dr. Michelle Hensel, a medical director for the Community Health Aide Program, receives her vaccine shot while holding up a sticker with Alaska chief medical officer Anne Zink’s image on it. The sticker says “Find new ways to be strong together.” (Marc Lester / ADN)

Governor says he will getting the vaccine

While Alaska’s governor said he’d likely be getting a COVID-19 vaccine sometime in the next few weeks, he said he respects the choice of those who are more unsure.

When asked what he would say to individuals who are skeptical or hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he understood their perspective and that he wants to respect people’s personal health decisions.

“For those that are skeptical and don’t want, that’s their choice,” Dunleavy said at a Tuesday news conference. “They’re fellow Alaskans, I think we should respect them. For those who do want to get a vaccination, that’s their choice, they’re fellow Alaskans and we should respect them.”

And for the governor himself, he’ll get the shots, he said.

The governor said he would likely be getting the vaccination sometime in the next few weeks.

“Although we’re in this together, we’re all individuals,” Dunleavy said.

The vaccine, from Pfizer and Biontech, received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week, and has been widely heralded as a step toward the end of the pandemic.

In trials, the vaccine proved to be incredibly effective, preventing COVID-19 in more than 90% of participants. It’s passed safety reviews in several countries, including the United States.

Asked if Dunleavy personally believed the vaccine is safe and effective, and whether he would encourage other Alaskans to get it, the governor said that if he believed the shots would be harmful to him, he wouldn’t get them.

“I’m going to do what I think is best for me,” Dunleavy said. “I would encourage others to do what they believe is best for them.”

He said people should talk with their health care providers about the vaccine.

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