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‘The only way out of this’: Sutter frontline workers get COVID vaccinations

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From a distance, the woman carrying two coolers across 3rd Street in Santa Rosa about 7 a.m. Sunday morning might have been mistaken for a person delivering food.

But Carolyn Dam, the pharmacy manager for Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, was doing work infinitely more vital. Dam and her colleague Mark Minnie, Sutter’s regional director of pharmacy, had just spent several tense minutes transferring 60 vials of Pfizer-BioNTech’s precious COVID-19 vaccine from an ultra-cold freezer at Memorial Hospital into those coolers. Time was of the essence.

The vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. The pharmacists, using cryogenic gloves, had three minutes to take their 60 vials, and return the rest to the freezer.

It took them 1 minute, 57 seconds.

“There was a little pressure,” said Minnie, with a smile.

Those 60 vials, which will yield 360 shots, are Sutter’s share of the 5,000 doses shipped to Sonoma County on Thursday -- the first wave of vaccines to arrive. While Memorial and Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center started inoculating their highest priority workers Friday, Sutter had to wait two additional days before beginning vaccinations of its front line workers.

The Press Democrat was able to observe the vaccine’s chain of custody Sunday, from the storage facility at Memorial to the back of Dam’s Toyota 4Runner to the pharmacy at Sutter, and finally, into the shoulders of grateful nurses and doctors who see first hand, on a daily basis, the ravages of this pandemic.

“There’s always death in the ICU,” said Olivia Van Orden, an intensive care nurse who was among the first to get a shot Sunday. What’s new, and what is “the hardest part, by far,” she said, is helping patients who are dying, but whose family members can’t be with them.

The vaccination, she said, “is the only way out of this. It’s a little bit of a relief to know we’re doing this today.”

After stashing those coolers in her SUV, Dam and Minnie took 10 minutes to cover the 6 miles to Sutter hospital. Once there, after commandeering a cart from a first floor corridor to hold Minnie’s box of medical supplies, they bee-lined for the pharmacy, one floor up, to begin thawing enough vaccine to inoculate 96 workers. Some 360 of the hospital’s front line staff will be inoculated over the next three days.

The vaccinations took place in a large room typically reserved for seminars and hospital meetings. When Dam showed up with a brown plastic envelope containing vials of the vaccine, the hospital’s director of education, Ali Myer, reacted as if she was carrying a newborn baby.

“It’s so beautiful! Very cool! So pretty!”

It was Myer who’d set up the makeshift clinic, with four stations where nurses administered shots. But that couldn’t happen until Dam diluted the vaccine, injecting 1.8 milliliters of saline into each vial, then “agitating” the reconstituted vaccine by rotating – “not shaking it,” she emphasized – 10 times.

First in line was Dr. Gary Green, the hospital’s lead infectious disease specialist, who’d given a lecture to several hundred staff a few days earlier on the “safety and efficacy” of the vaccine. Asked during the Q&A if he’d be getting inoculated himself, he said, “I’m happy to be first.”

So he was. After rolling up the left sleeve of his scrubs, he turned to Dam, who would be administering the shot, “I hope you practiced on some oranges or something.”

The injection went smoothly, as did the flow of frontline workers through the clinic, one every five minutes, for the remainder of the morning.

Up next was Rick Moonman, an emergency room nurse who works with COVID-19 patients every day -- a range spanning people who come in asking for a test, he said, to patients who arrive by ambulance and “are literally suffocating, in respiratory arrest.”

He tells colleagues skeptical of the vaccine, “Then don’t get it for yourself. Do it for your neighbors, do it for your grandparents. Do it for little kids. I just took care of a little 10-year-old who had to be hospitalized because of COVID.”

The scene on Sunday morning was cheerful, bordering on festive. Injections were frequently followed by rounds of applause. One of the louder ovations followed the vaccination of Dr. Veronica Jordan, who thrust her arms into an uppercase V, for victory, shouting, “This is the best gift of 2020!”

Later, she spoke of the importance of exhibiting enthusiasm, to convince both the general public, and her colleagues, that the vaccine is safe. “Because there is skepticism,” she said, “even among frontline health care workers.”

While Jordan sat for the required 15 minutes post-shot, making sure she suffered no adverse reaction, her three children waited for her in the parking lot. A month or so earlier, she told them all she wanted for Christmas was a vaccine.

This week, her 10-year-old son Dillon reminded her of that wish. “You said a few weeks ago, you wanted a vaccine, and now it’s happening,” he said.

“It’s almost like magic.”

The expression one kept hearing at this clinic was “ray of light” – a metaphor that implies, accurately, considerable darkness. It’s a grim moment in the pandemic, across the nation and in Sonoma County, which reported 2,020 new coronavirus cases between last Sunday and Saturday, more than 10% of all 16,495 cases recorded since March.

But Sunday’s clinic at Sutter was devoted to the light. Acknowledging that we are at or near “the worst” of the pandemic, the hospital’s chief medical executive, Dr. Bill Carroll then noted that “tomorrow is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year.”

“Then each day, for the next six months, will be a little bit brighter.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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