SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Last Friday, Registered Nurse Kevin Hurley became the first staff member at South County Health to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
The emergency department staff member said she was proud to be part of such a historical day for the hospital, and honored to have been chosen as the first recipient.
“This is a very special place for me, so I thought I might as well be the first one to receive the vaccine,” Hurley said, reminiscing on the number of important life events that took place for her inside those walls.
South County Health isn’t only where Hurley was born, it’s where she held her first job out of college, working in a lab, and where she’d return years later after becoming a registered nurse. It’s also where she gave birth to her own daughter, and where she met her current significant other.
While she lightheartedly jokes about being the guinea pig, Hurley hopes that being the “face” behind the vaccine will sway colleagues and fellow community members who might still be on the fence. For those who have already reached out to her directly, Hurley has been happy to report that she’s feeling well.
Many other frontline workers at South Country Health will follow in her footsteps over the next several weeks ahead, according to Marketing and Communications Specialist Eric Dickervitz. Over the course of eight scheduled vaccine clinics, Hurley is to be followed by approximately 1,060 of her colleagues who signed up to receive the first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
The shipment, which was received a day prior to its administration, contained enough supply to inoculate every staff member with the first dose, according to South County Health Pharmacy Manager Drew Ross, PharmD, MBA.
Chief Medical Officer Aaron Hattaway is “confident that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be pivotal in controlling the COVID-19 virus,” given the information that has been provided by the Rhode Island Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have been assured that no steps in the evaluation of safety or efficacy were skipped in the development of this vaccine. Due to the immense public need, significant financial and human resources were made available to conduct these trials as quickly as possible,” Hattaway said.
Usual procedural delays between steps were abbreviated by executive order resulting in less waiting between steps, but no steps skipped. In order to assure staff members of the vaccine’s safety and ease any concerns, South Country Health held a virtual town hall meeting to answer any possible questions.
Both Hattaway and Ross were included on the expert panel tasked with answering these questions, but other notable members include Dr. Philip Chan of the Rhode Island Department of Health and South County Health’s Vaccine Task Force, Infection Prevention Director Lee Ann Quinn and Chief Nursing Officer Anitra Galmore.
Like many community members, staff members have questions about possible negative side effects. During clinical trials, most common side effects included pain at the injection site, fatigue and headache, as well as less common side effects like malaise, chills and fever.
Because of these potential side effects, staff members are encouraged to schedule their vaccination 24 to 48 hours prior to a day off in case they do not feel well enough to work. The panel of experts emphasized, however, that the vaccine will not cause the recipients to contract the virus or test positive.
According to Hurley, she did experience some soreness in her shoulder the following day, but it didn’t prevent her from participating in any of her normal activities — like squeezing in a workout. She described it as the same type of soreness many flu shot recipients received, and stressed that the small handful of adverse reactions that have been seen, like anaphylactic shock, are rare. These types of reactions have been among individuals with a history of previous anaphylactic reactions to another vaccine or injectable medication.
Individuals with this type of medical history can still receive the vaccine, though they’ll be monitored for 30 minutes afterward, rather than just the standard 15 minute monitoring window for everyone else.
While Hurley didn’t have any reservations about scheduling her vaccine, hearing from the panel of experts the hospital had put together only further assured that she wasn’t “concerned at all about it.” She hopes others take time to learn more, if they’re curious or concerned, from reputable sources like the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“There’s always going to be people out there who have distrust, and you’re not going to be able to get through to all of those people, but I can be one person that people can see and say, ‘Okay, they had it and they did okay — no extra limbs have grown and they didn’t drop dead on the spot.’”
It’s going to be months before most people will even have the option of receiving the vaccine, and in that time, Hurley hopes people will be paying attention to the success of the vaccine. Encouraging everyone to receive it, not just healthcare workers and high risk individuals, will be incredibly important.
As someone who’s young, healthy and active, Hurley likely wouldn’t suffer major complications if she got COVID-19 — but that isn’t the case for others she could unknowingly pass it along to. To the best of her knowledge, Hurley has never contracted COVID-19, but some people never experience symptoms.
“When I’m working, I hate the thought that I could get someone else sick,” she said.
Seven days after an individual’s second dose, administered 21 days after the first, the vaccine is assumed to be 95 percent effective. South County Health will have finished administering the first round of the vaccine by Monday, and for Hurley and others who went first last Friday, they’ll be receiving the second dose a week into January.
South County Health President/CEO Aaron Robinson reflected on the importance of this step in protecting healthcare workers and the general public.
“Our team is excited to embark on this momentous administration of the COVID-19 vaccine,” Robinson said. “This will be critical to protect our frontline staff who have worked tirelessly to serve our community. After review of the Pfizer vaccine, we believe the vaccine to be safe, highly effective and a promising turning point in the battle against COVID-19.”