Iowa health care workers receive first COVID-19 vaccinations

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Yana Zemkova, an internal medicine doctor at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, received one of the first COVID-19 vaccines distributed in Iowa on Dec. 14, 2020. (Photo provided by University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics)
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By Linh Ta, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Doctors, nurses, hospital executives and custodial staff were among the first people in Iowa on Monday to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, an event hospital officials marked as an optimistic milestone toward the end of the pandemic.

By the end of the day, Suresh Gunasekaran, CEO of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, said more than 100 UI health care employees will receive the vaccine, including himself.

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“Like many health care workers around the country and around the state, this has been somewhat of an endless, tiring pandemic that hasn’t really given us too many things to be optimistic about, honestly — until now,” Gunasekaran said, during a press conference on Monday.

The state is following CDC recommendations to put health care workers first in line for the vaccine, followed by nursing home residents.

The first Pfizer vaccine shipment was allocated for those who work most closely with COVID-19 patients, Gunasekaran said.

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Because of some of the vaccine’s potential side effects, such as fatigue, fever and chills, distribution has been spaced out between departments.

The hospital will learn how many vaccines they will be allocated on a week-to-week basis for now, Gunasekaran said. People who receive immunizations will need to also get a second dose.

While spirits were high at the hospital, Gunasekaran acknowledged that some workers feel hesitant about getting the vaccine. An internal survey showed 85% were willing to receive the immunization, but others may have some safety concerns, he said.

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Pat Winokur, executive dean of the University of Iowa Carver College, said some people in the general public have expressed concerns about the approval speed of the vaccine, but “that’s not as true as people believe.”

She said more than 30,000 people were in the Pfizer clinical trials, including herself. Typically, trials only involve a couple thousand people, Winokur said.

Vaccine distribution was also able to ramp up more quickly because they were being manufactured at the same time as the trials — a financial risk companies don’t typically make under normal circumstances, she said.

Even when vaccines are publicly available, Winokur said it will be important for people to continue wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing. Though the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have a 95% efficacy rate, the remaining 5% of people may still contract the virus and there are also people who are unable to receive immunizations.

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“Vaccines are not perfect,” Winokur said.

Gunasekaran said overall hospitalizations have gone down at the hospital and are at their lowest rate since October. 

When the virus surged in November before Thanksgiving, health care workers warned Iowa was at risk of overwhelming medical staff.

Gunasekaran urged Iowans to continue practicing mitigation efforts through Christmas, but he said the vaccine distribution means Iowans finally have a timeline — about six to nine months — for when life may finally return to normal.

“We’re not done until we’re done,” Gunasekaran said.

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