Morale gets a boost as Alaska medical workers line up for COVID vaccine

Health care workers continued to express enthusiasm for the vaccine Wednesday despite the hospitalization of a Juneau woman who had a severe allergic reaction after receiving a dose.

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Dr. Benjamin Westley knew the day would be a memorable one from the moment he woke up.

“I’ve never been this excited to a get a vaccine,” Westley, an infectious disease specialist in Anchorage who has been treating COVID-19 patients, said while driving to work Wednesday morning.

Alaska health care workers Wednesday continued receiving some of the state’s first COVID-19 vaccines. Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital both began hosting shot clinics for their health care workers Wednesday. Workers at the Alaska Native Medical Center began receiving the vaccine on Tuesday.

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Several expressed enthusiasm over the positive impact mass vaccinations will have on the nation as a whole, and offered continued confidence in the vaccine despite a rare allergic reaction in a Juneau hospital worker after she received the vaccine on Tuesday.

Providence, Alaska’s largest hospital, began vaccinating frontline staff Wednesday at 7 a.m. An auditorium in the basement was set up for the vaccine clinic, with doctors, nurses, and other caregivers lining up in the hallway outside before coming in to receive their shots. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine requires two injections given 21 days apart.

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Westley was one of the first recipients Wednesday morning. Once fully vaccinated with both doses, he said he will feel less paranoid that a throat tickle or a sneeze might end up being a dangerous illness he could potentially bring home to his family.

“By taking a vaccine, you’re protecting people you love,” Westley said.

And, it’s much better to get a vaccine than to risk complications from the illness itself, he said. He encouraged everyone to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them.

“The reality is either you get vaccinated, or you’re going to get COVID,” Westley said. “It’s just a matter of time because it’s so infectious and it’s so widespread.”

Debbie O’Brien, an intensive care unit nurse at Providence, planned to take a nap Wednesday afternoon after getting vaccinated in the morning. She hadn’t slept much the night before — she was too excited about the vaccine. Once she got the email saying she could sign up for a dose, she chose the earliest slot possible.

“I was not scared,” O’Brien said. “What is scary is seeing somebody die. That is scary. It’s way more scary than anything we’ve done today,” she said of getting vaccinated.

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Brooke Nelson, an endoscopy nurse at Providence, got the vaccine and said it’s a way to protect those who are immunocompromised as well as her parents, who are in their 60s and 70s.

Nelson said she hopes the public will still be willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. She got it, and she is so afraid of needles that she’s been known to pass out when getting her blood drawn, she said.

“I think that a little sore arm is a lot more comfortable than a breathing tube,” Nelson said.

On Wednesday, Providence scheduled 240 appointments, with the goal for the first week of administering shots to 485 people.

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Alaska Regional Hospital converted an empty office suite into its vaccination clinic in a building next to the main hospital. Dr. Jennifer Dow, an emergency room physician, was the first to receive the shot.

She called the shot “point-three CCs of hope,” using medical terminology for cubic centimeters, just before the needle entered her left arm. Colleagues applauded when she left the small room. She bumped elbows with fellow E.R. doctor Nancy Kragt.

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When Dow, Kragt and Dr. David Scordino, the medical director of the emergency department, all had gotten their shots, the three rolled up their sleeves and posed for photos together in the waiting area.

“The emergency department has been chaotic. It’s been hard. It’s been dark. Morale has been challenging. And this is like we’re coming around a bend in the tunnel and I can see some light. And it’s going to get better,” Dow said “I’m not all unicorns and rainbows, but it’s hope.”

Marco A. Castillo, a charge nurse in the medical overflow unit which currently treats COVID-19 patients, said he had been skeptical about getting the vaccine right away. His opinion changed after he researched it and sought advice.

“I’m not going to lie, I was one of the naysayers. I guess I just felt this vaccine was going to be rushed and there wasn’t enough diligent research done into it,” Castillo said. “However, once I started looking into it myself and spoke to our head of infection prevention, I realized this isn’t something rushed.”

Hopefully, the vaccine will be the best route out of the pandemic, he said.

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It will take time before the effect is apparent in the general population, but Scordino likes the analogy to the solstice that he has recently heard. Change will come, just as daylight slowly returns.

“We’ve really been entering some of our darkest days. Unfortunately, we’re not out of that period yet,” he said. “But there’s light that’s going to start getting brighter.”

Scordino said he marvels at the speed at which the vaccine was created and the technology that made it possible. That’s something that one day could prevent other illnesses too.

“We’re watching the start of something that’s just incredible,” he said.

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Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.

Loren Holmes

Loren Holmes is a staff photojournalist at the Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at loren@adn.com.