The first employees at Beaumont Health Care received the much-anticipated Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday after months of battling a merciless virus that at one point killed more people on their watch than in any other hospital system in Michigan: more than 450 deaths in one month alone — 15 people a day.
It’s those dark days that had many overcome with emotion at a Beaumont center in Southfield, where more than two dozen employees lined up at 2 p.m. to take their turn at the needle, welcoming the shot that they hope will help end the pandemic that has killed nearly 300,000 Americans, and restore some normalcy to upended lives.
“It feels like a relief, a signaling to the end of this long pandemic,” Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont’s director of infection prevention and epidemiology, said moments after getting the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Gilpin was the first at Beaumont to get the shot, flashing a thumbs up and smiling as the nurse applied the Band-Aid.
“Nothing to it, just like every other shot I’ve gotten,” said Gilpin, who urges all Americans to get the vaccine when it becomes more readily available.
“I’ve lost a lot of patients,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of people who, in my opinion, did not have to die. And that’s been really hard and humbling.”
Gilpin said he understands the concerns and skepticism about the vaccine, noting “it’s the fastest-made vaccine by far” in our lifetime. But the science and data are solid, he stressed, adding Pfizer was transparent throughout the entire process.
“The science speaks volumes,” Gilpin said. “This has been one of the most transparent vaccine (trials) that we’ve been through. (The data) show that the vaccine is safe and effective.”
Gilpin, who got the vaccine after visiting a COVID-19 unit earlier Tuesday, noted that the staff seemed more optimistic than usual, visibly relieved that the vaccine had finally arrived.
The mood was different, he said. There were signs of hope.
“They seem less defeated,” Gilpin said. “They’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
But there’s still lingering darkness.
“Unfortunately, it’s still tough times at our hospitals,” Gilpin said. “Our beds are still limited. And if we don’t get our arms around this, it’s going to be an extremely long winter.”
Gilpin, one of 15-plus Beaumont employees receiving the vaccine Tuesday, are in the “high priority group” of health care workers who were selected to receive the first doses and were recommended by their teams.
Beaumont Health, the state’s largest hospital system with 38,000 employees, hopes to have its entire staff vaccinated within four to six weeks. It is not mandating the vaccine for its staff, though leaders are strongly encouraging health care workers to get vaccinated.
The vaccinations at Beaumont come one day after health care workers at Michigan Medicine and Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids received the first doses of the vaccine since its approval over the weekend.
As of Tuesday afternoon, several hospital systems in Metro Detroit had yet to receive the vaccine, including Henry Ford Health Systems, McLaren Health, the Detroit Medical Center and Ascension.
The vaccine comes as much-needed relief at Beaumont, which during the spring took care of the most COVID-19 patients in the state.
“I had some tears of joy when that first shot was given,” Naomi Ishioka, an emergency department nurse who serves as emergency preparedness coordinator for Beaumont’s Troy hospital, said after watching Tuesday’s vaccinations.
She remembered back to March, when she swabbed the first patient to test positive for coronavirus at Beaumont in Troy. She remembered a coworker who got very ill from COVID-19. She remembered a colleague who died. She remembered a good friend’s parents, who both died last week.
“Today,” she said, “is the beginning of the end” of COVID-19.
State officials said they hope to administer the vaccine to the general public in Michigan by spring.
“The vaccine cannot actually give you the virus,” the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, said at a press conference Tuesday.
In hoping to calm fears about the vaccine, Khaldun said that people may experience a light fever, sore arm or fatigue from the vaccine, but that means that it is working and helping the body build its defense to the novel coronavirus.
Khaldun noted that the Pfizer vaccine will be given in two doses. Patients will return for their second dose three weeks after receiving the first shot.
Meanwhile, a second vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, could also be approved as soon as this weekend. That vaccine will also be given in two doses, four weeks apart.
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