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Coronavirus

'A Mini Miracle': First Workers In St. Louis Receive Coronavirus Vaccine

Nurse Ben Ojie was among the first in the St. Louis region to receive a coronavirus vaccination. Ojie works works in the COVID-19 unit at Mercy South Hospital in south St. Louis County. Monday, December 14, 2020.
Theo R. Welling
/
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Nurse Ben Ojie on Monday was among the first in the St. Louis region to receive a coronavirus vaccination. Ojie works works in the COVID-19 unit at Mercy South Hospital in south St. Louis County.

Mercy Health employees were among the first in the region to receive the newly approved coronavirus vaccine after the first shipments of the shots arrived in Missouri early Monday.

The federal government is shipping 51,000 initial doses of the vaccine to the state’s health care workers this week, and millions more are expected in the next two months.

Mercy Hospital South has received 3,000 initial doses of the vaccine. Hospital officials chose 20 workers of different races, ages and job titles to show that it is vital and safe for everyone to get a shot. The workers will receive the second dose of the vaccine next month.

The vaccinations mark a turning point in the pandemic, which has killed nearly 5,000 people in Missouri and sickened thousands more. More than 100 patients with COVID-19 are being admitted to hospitals in the St. Louis region every day, and health care employees are burned out and scared from working nonstop with coronavirus patients.

“I didn’t really see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said the Rev. Bill Cardy, a chaplain at Mercy South. “And now I see it and I feel it. It doesn’t hurt at all. And those needles must be very sharp, because I didn’t feel it!”

Mercy Hospital South chaplain, the Rev. Bill Cardy, speaks to reporters after becoming one of the first Missourians to receive a coronavirus vaccination Monday, December 14, 2020.
Theo Welling
The Rev. Bill Cardy, a chaplain at Mercy Hospital South, speaks to reporters after becoming one of the first Missourians to receive a coronavirus vaccination on Monday.

Cardy called the rapid development and delivery of the vaccine a “mini miracle.”

“I am absolutely overwhelmed,” he said. “I was astounded to hear I was chosen to receive it today. … It took four years for the measles vaccine to kick in, and we’re just doing it in 25% of the time.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine from drug company Pfizer for emergency use on Friday, and drug manufacturers began shipping those doses immediately.

The first shipments went to facilities that had the ability to store the vaccine at its needed temperature of minus 90 degrees.

The FDA is soon expected to approve another vaccine, from drug maker Moderna, that doesn’t require extreme cold storage. Still other companies are working on other vaccines for use early next year.

Hospital workers who are in contact with coronavirus patients are first in line to receive the vaccine in Missouri, along with nursing home workers and staff.

“It’s been a really hard year for us,” said Nicole Boyer, an ICU nurse at Mercy South who was also among the first to receive the vaccine. “I guess you could say I am really looking forward to people getting vaccinated, so it will put less stress on the hospitals, so we can give the care the patients deserve. Because we’re all mentally and physically tired.”

Employees want the public to know the vaccine was easy and safe to receive, Boyer said.

Nichole Boyer, clinical team leader at Mercy South Hospital, receives a coronavirus vaccination on Monday, December 14, 2020. Boyer was among the first in the St. Louis area to receive the vaccine.
Theo R. Welling
Nicole Boyer, clinical team leader at Mercy South Hospital, receives a coronavirus vaccination on Monday. Boyer was among the first in the St. Louis area to receive the vaccine.

“It is so important to slow the spread of the virus. I have seen the effects of what the virus does to the patients, and it is far scarier than the vaccine,” she said.

After the first Mercy employees received their doses at the hospital’s employee health clinic, they posed together for pictures. Unlike in recent months, the mood inside the hospital was joyous.

“I do this for my wife, my kids and my floor, 5 West, and 5 East!” said nurse Ben Ojie, who works with coronavirus patients. “We’re like family.”

Dr. Aamina Akhtar, Mercy South’s chief medical officer and the first person at the hospital to receive the shot, called the vaccine “a game changer.”

State health officials have said the only way to effectively end the pandemic is through a widely available, effective vaccine.

“Within months, this pandemic will get under control,” Akhtar said. “That’s why we see it as an honor.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Dr. Aamina Akhtar, chief medical officer at Mercy Hospital South.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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