Truman Medical Centers vaccinated frontline workers against COVID-19 Monday, making it the first hospital in Kansas City to implement inoculations and marking a major milestone in the fight against the pandemic.
ICU nurse Sarah Kiehl was the first Truman staff member to get the coronavirus vaccine. She's worked in the COVID unit since the start of the pandemic.
“It feels like a little bit of hope, a little bit of light, a little bit of chance that we might start to see some healing and see some people truly getting better,” Kiehl said, taking a break from her shift to answer media questions.
Hospitals across Kansas City expected shipments of the vaccine this week, giving hope just as case numbers spike again. The Kansas City metro has seen more than 1,200 deaths due to the virus and a weekly new hospitalization average of 1,195.
“You can see the end of the pandemic in sight,” Truman President and CEO Charlie Shields said. “And that is cause for great excitement, not just within Truman … but I think the general population as a whole.”
Frontline workers — including employees treating patients with COVID-19, emergency department workers and ICU staff — were first in line. Truman won’t have enough doses to give its entire staff of about 4,500 a shot this week.
Dr. Mark Steele, Truman’s Executive Chief Clinical Officer, called the vaccine a “terrific holiday gift” and said within the coming weeks, he hopes they will be able to vaccinate everyone at the safety-net provider. Truman hoped to vaccinate 40 people by the end of the day.
Kiehl, the first vaccinated, has worked as a nurse for seven years and said she has never seen anything like this.
“We have never had to dedicate an entire ICU to one illness. That has never happened,” Kiehl said. “... And our COVID ICU has been frequently running out of beds. Unfortunately, sometimes only having beds [become available] when people have passed away.”
Kiehl said it’s been “extremely devastating” seeing the number of deaths. When she got the vaccine, she thought of all of the patients she’s cared for and the FaceTime calls she’s had to make so families can say goodbye to their loved ones one last time.
“I could see their faces in my mind,” Kiehl said. “And just thinking like, this might be how we finally get out of this really tragic, heavy time.”
While the vaccine represents a “light at the end of the tunnel,” Kansas City residents still need to follow physical distancing guidelines and wear a mask to avoid a continued increase in hospitalizations, Steele said.
“The tunnel still is pretty darn long before we get a sufficient number of the U.S. population vaccinated and develop some herd immunity,” Steele said.
Some hospitals are still waiting for vaccination deliveries. In Kansas, AdventHealth is “preparing for administering as early as this week” but hasn’t gotten a delivery date, according to a spokeswoman. She said the information is “coming slowly for security purposes.” While staffing levels aren’t strained, AdventHealth saw its highest number of COVID-19 inpatients last week.
Health experts from the University of Kansas Health system announced Monday that they are expecting their shipment of the vaccine either later Monday or Tuesday.
“I think when the numbers start going down and our hospital staff can feel life returning to normal, that's when the real celebration starts. The vaccine is a symbol of hope that will protect our staff and ultimately our community from getting COVID-19,” Dr. Steven Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health system, said.
KU officials announced at the daily briefing Monday that 82 of its patients have active COVID-19 cases, a drop from the more than 100 hospitalized last week. Of that number, 37 are in the intensive care unit and 24 are on ventilators.
Healthcare workers and long-term care facilities are the focus of the first round of vaccinations, but Stites said frontline workers will be the first in line at KU hospital.
“The way we are doing it is the duration and intensity of exposure to COVID-19 defines where you are in the order of getting the vaccine. So it's really the frontline workers, respiratory therapy, environmental services, physicians, nurses, everyone who's in the front line,” Stites said.
The number of vaccines that can be performed a day will be limited by how many recipients experience side effects after their dose, according to Stites. The COVID-19 vaccine’s side effects have been compared to the influenza vaccine, with a mild fever, local pain, or headache.
These side effects are similar to symptoms of a COVID-19 infection so the hospital will only be vaccinating a portion of each unit at time in case any workers start experiencing them and cannot go to work, Stites said.
“Let's say it's an ICU unit. We can't vaccinate everybody at once because if everybody has the symptoms or even half the people have the symptoms, which is what it is within the flu shot, they can't go in and work in the ICU shift,” Stites said.
Stites said he doesn’t anticipate the vaccination staggering to be a problem since it will be a while until the hospital has enough doses to vaccinate a large number of its staff.
The hospital doesn’t know how many doses of the Pfizer vaccine it will be receiving weekly, and is waiting to see how many of the Moderna vaccine it will receive if it is granted emergency authorization this week.
Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said Friday that he expects the state will receive another 105,000 doses of a vaccine from Moderna next week.
Missouri reported Monday that 83 people died of the coronavirus in the last seven days, according to the state's dashboard. In total, 4,514 Missouri residents have died of COVID-19. In Kansas, there have been a total 2,072 deaths, according to a state website.
Once the state has enough doses to begin vaccinating the general public, Stites said the hospital’s next challenge will be convincing those that are hesitant about the vaccine to get one.
University of Kansas economist Donna Ginther is the co-author of a study that found areas in the state with mask mandates had lower COVID-19 hospitalization rates.
She said those that are reluctant to wear a face mask in public are also likely hesitant to receive the vaccine once it becomes available.
“Unfortunately I think those two are correlated. We're in a situation where people are not going to take this seriously until it affects them personally, until somebody they know gets sick or somebody they knows dies. We really need to kind of reverse that and tell the story of how important it is to prevent the spread of this disease,” Ginther said.
Ginther said the state will need to engage with rural communities and communities of color and educate them on the importance of the vaccine to help rebuild their trust.
Until at least 70% of the population has been vaccinated and cases numbers are dramatically lower than they are, Stites said he expects mask and social-distancing mandates to still be in place.