BY KEVIN DUGGAN, ROBERT POZARYCKI AND GABRIELE HOLTERMANN
Hundreds more health care workers across New York received the first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday a day after the first doses finally went into action.
The city reported that more than 40,000 doses were expected to be available at 42 hospitals citywide. The primary focus for vaccination, at this point, remains on health care workers and nursing home residents and staff.
St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens began administering the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to its frontline workers on Monday and invited members of the media take a look behind the scenes on Tuesday, Dec. 15.
St. John’s serves 140,000 residents on the peninsula and was the first hospital to confirm a COVID-19 patient in Queens back in March. Since then, the community was one of the hardest-hit in New York during the peak of the virus in New York state and the hospital was at 100 percent capacity through June.
In Tuesday’s press conference, the hospital’s Chief Executive Officer Gerard M. Walsh recognized the sacrifices his staff made during the pandemic and was thankful to have the vaccine available for them, knowing that they will be protected.
“This certainly will bring people comfort to know that they are protected,” Walsh said.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Donald T. Morrish addressed the community’s healthcare disparities, which put residents at greater risk of COVID-19, with members of the Black and Latino community seeing two-times the COVID-19 death rate as those of white New Yorkers.
“We are trying to lead the charge in trying to correct this disparity and address healthcare on the peninsula,” Morrish said.
The hospital’s focus is currently on administering the vaccine to its 2,300 frontline workers. The hospital’s employees, many of whom live in the community, are educated on the COVID-19 vaccine, and immunization is voluntary. According to a survey conducted beforehand, between 40 and 50 percent of the staff were receptive to the vaccine.
Morrish was one of the 175 patients who already received the vaccine since it arrived on Monday. He said he felt great and hasn’t experienced any side effects.
“I feel great emotionally; I feel great physically,” he said. “I think it is one of those great opportunities, and I’m thankful that the vaccine is available. I’m thankful for all those individuals that went before us in the trials to be vaccinated early to give us such great data.”
St. John’s Episcopal Hospital already had the refrigeration capabilities in place for storing the vaccine. The facility has two ultra-low-temperature freezers in the pharmacy capable of storing Pfizer’s vaccine at the proper temperature of -70°C. Before the vaccine is administered, it is thawed in regular refrigeration units — a process that takes about 30 minutes — where it can be stored for five days.
The hospital’s frontline workers interested in receiving the vaccine do not have to schedule an appointment and can receive the immunization on a walk-in basis. After vaccination, they are observed for 15-30 minutes and checked for side effects. So far, none of the 175 who have received the vaccine have not reported any adverse reaction.
Meanwhile in Brooklyn, the vaccine was injected into health care workers at NYU Langone-Brooklyn, where 45-year-old Tara Qaranta was the first frontline healthcare worker to receive it.
“I feel relieved,” said Quaranta, a resident of Staten Island who works as an emergency department nurse at the Sunset Park hospital. “I feel like this is a light at the end of a really dark tunnel.”
Quaranta received the vaccination at at 1 pm on Dec. 15, marking a milestone for the healthcare worker and her colleagues.
“It’s a nice moment. It’s a big moment for us,” she said. “We all worked through this pandemic together — as a team. I think it’s really important for me to get this vaccine to continue working, doing what we do to care for people.”
As of Dec. 15, more than 300,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and over 16 million have been diagnosed.