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A year after COVID vaccine availability, the trip is still long and strange

Dec. 15, 2020 was a day of hope, a day when the light at the tunnel’s end seemed more like sunshine than an oncoming train.

That was the day when, after nearly a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the very first vaccines were being injected into the arms of health care workers in Charlottesville.

“That day was filled with so much excitement. It was a tangible sense of relief,” said Justin Vesser, the University of Virginia pharmacist who administered the first doses of vaccine to UVa healthcare workers.

“When you put that shot in someone’s arm, you could feel a sense of relief that we were finally safe. We could now do something besides just hide. And that’s what we were doing, hiding. It was really a great day,” he said.

“It seems like such a long time ago,” said Dr. Taison Bell, director of the medical intensive care unit at UVa Medical Center and one of the first to get the shot.

“What sticks out is the feeling that we finally had something that could turn back the pandemic, and it would be a different day going forward.”

The hope came after a year of sickness, death and the altering of daily routines from the novel coronavirus. Word of a new, lethal respiratory disease circulating through Wuhan, China emerged in December, 2019. While many in the U.S. at first could not imagine that the virus could wreak havoc in the U.S., the situation turned serious fast. New York City was hit hard in February, 2020. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic in early March, 2020. When coronavirus was first detected in Virginia that same month, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and many work places were shut down.

“When things were starting to get serious and people realized that mask mandates were coming down and it was getting real and catching people’s attention that this could not be avoided, people who knew me would say ‘how does this all end? What gets us out of this?’” Vesser recalled.

“There were really only a couple of choices. One hope was that it would be seasonal like the flu and go away on its own, but it was quickly determined that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “The other was that we’d get a good, effective vaccine, and the odds of that happening quickly seemed slim.”

There was little about which to feel positive early in the pandemic.

“It was pretty bleak. Vaccines were the only real clean way out of it and I expected that would take two years, maybe more,” Vesser said.

It did not. With support from the federal government and medical researchers across the country and the world focusing on the SARS-CoV-19 virus, a vaccine was ready in less than a year. The FDA granted something called emergency use authorization, or EUA, first for a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech Dec. 11, 2021. Soon after, the FDA granted EUA to a vaccine by Moderna.

UVa began receiving the Pfizer vaccine in December 2020 and notified nearly 3,000 employees they could receive the first vaccinations. UVa officials encouraged people to get the shots, but they were not required at that time.

From Dec. 15 to the end of January 2021, UVa Health administered more than 23,000 doses, including first of the two shots to 4,315 people in the community older than 75. Another 23,000 additional doses were scheduled in the next months or so.

More than 700 UVa Health employees volunteered to give the shots, helping the university administer as many as 1,400 doses in a day.

“I never felt a stronger sense of urgency about anything in my professional career. I felt that we needed to do this well and we needed to do it fast and needed to do it safely and effectively get this vaccine out,” Vesser said. “My sense of excitement was very, very high and sense of hope was very high, especially when we saw the reports of how effective the vaccines were.”

COVID-19 disproportionately affected Black and Latinx people, as well as those who worked in essential jobs. UVa volunteers joined with the Blue Ridge Health District in going into neighborhoods to bring shots to those who could not get to them themselves.

“A lot of the early availability for the vaccine was made through websites and in English,” Vesser recalled. “If you worked three jobs or didn’t speak English or didn’t have a computer, you were not going to get the same chance for a shot as someone who had all of those advantages.”

“Eventually we had success. With these things you always want them to work faster and be more extensive and there were frustrations along the way, but the fact is that we were able to really close that gap significantly and it is reflected in the kinds of admissions we’re seeing in the hospital now, for COVID,” said Bell, who also went into the community to support the COVID shots.

“In the early days, there was heavily over-representation by black and brown communities, and we’re not seeing that anymore. We still admit different demographics and age groups but we’re not seeing UVa being driven by those representative communities. They have relatively high vaccination rates, now,” he said.

When the first shots became available, there was high hope the vaccine would change the pandemic game, and it did. However, mutant viral variants coupled with viral and virulent politics has muddled the progress.

“The combination of the variants and vaccine disinformation, which has been its own pandemic, has put us in a spot where we have some pockets of the country and the commonwealth that have very good protection and some that are vulnerable to the virus,” Bell said.

“We didn’t see it becoming as politicized. It seems to have become a proxy or new front for the culture wars that were waged before COVID happened. Guns, abortion, critical race theory and vaccines have become all swept up into all of that. It should stand aside from all of that other stuff because the science firmly backs it,” Bell said. “Science is apolitical when you boil it down. Does the vaccine provide safety or does it not? It clearly does. It should not be a liberal or conservative thing.”

“We’re in a highly politicized climate in general and it’s unfortunate that every conceivable issue gets assigned a position on one side or the other, even if it has nothing to do with the beliefs of any political parties,” Vesser said. “We spent a lot of time this year just talking to people who don’t want a vaccine. The political reasons are a driver for lots of people, but there are people who are scared for a variety reasons.”

“We really need to remove the vaccine from the identity that’s become attached to it,” Bell said. “Getting vaccinated does not mean that the liberals owned you. It does not mean you’re a Fauci disciple. It’s really the best decision for you and your family and that should be enough.”

With variants from delta to omicron circulating in society and holiday get-togethers and winter weather sparking surges, COVID remains a public health problem one year after the vaccine arrived.

Increasing vaccination rates in the state, the country and the world would help, Vesser and Bell agree.

“It’s a worldwide problem, and the best thing we can do is get a safe effective vaccine pushed out to the corners of the world and the corners of our community. There’s some immunity that comes from getting COVID, but that comes with the chance of a lot of bad things happening to you, including dying. That’s not a gamble that anyone should be willing to take,” Vesser said.

“Having entire continents less than 50% vaccinated is a recipe for new variants that can potentially set us back. We haven’t had one that’s broken out of the bag to be more transmissible and more deadly, but I worry that the possibility is there, especially if there’s one that finds a different way to get into our bodies. I’ve learned to not underestimate this virus,” Bell said.

Changing minds at this point will need to be done by those who understand others’ points of views.

“On the local level, what we need to do is really increase vaccine confidence and uptake in our surrounding counties, like Fluvanna, Louisa, Greene, Nelson,” Bell said. “Those messengers at this point are not people like me or people who are doctors. It’s has to come from folks in those communities who have the same exact cultural backgrounds who for whatever reason switch and become vaccinated and then become leaders of that message.”

“What we have learned is that shaming, bullying and arguing about the merits of a vaccine just doesn’t work. Name calling and the things that make people feel bad for not doing it just don’t work. If anything, they galvanize people’s resolve to not do it,” Vesser said. “The best thing we can do is talk to each other as human beings, give each other respect to do what they want and to give good and accurate information and hope people will come to the right conclusion.”

Despite the hurdles, Bell said things have greatly improved.

“We can’t get lost in this about how remarkable all of this was, to go from the virus being isolated at the end of 2019 and having a vaccine out before the end of 2020. That’s a remarkable achievement,” Bell said.

“Where we are now is a reminder that being able to develop something with amazing technology is only the first step. Being able to increase confidence in that, get it out and separate from all of the crap that is a part of our messy democracy,” he said.


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