Dr. Ann-Elizabeth Mohart receives a COVID-19 vaccination

Dr. Ann-Elizabeth Mohart, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccination from a Mercy Washington staff member Tuesday, Dec. 15 at the hospital. After receiving the vaccination, recipients were asked to sit for 15 minutes and be monitored for any adverse reactions.

  

COVID-19 vaccine given to dozens of

hospital staff Tuesday night

By Ethan Colbert

ecolbert@emissourian.com

More than two dozen employees at Mercy Hospital Washington were among the first Missourians to receive the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday night. 

The hospital received 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which is currently limited to front-line workers in health care and long-term care facilities, to be administered to employees over the next week. 

The vaccine’s arrival was heralded by many staff members Tuesday.

Registered nurse Kris Friesz, who was the first to be vaccinated at the hospital, described the day as “a really big deal.” Dr. Ann-Elizabeth Mohart, a researcher in the hospital’s emergency department, described its distribution as “miraculous.” And Dr. Sheetal Sharma, chair of the hospital’s gastrointestinal department, called it “a historic day.”

The hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. Thomas Riechers, equated the vaccine’s deployment to D-Day, a pivotal turning point in World War II.

“This is our D-Day. This is our day in the war against COVID-19 that, just like with D-Day in World War II, where the war shifts. Now, we are on offense instead of defense,” he said.

For hospital president Eric Eoloff, the distribution of the vaccine “hopefully marked the start of the end of this pandemic,” which has killed more than 300,000 Americans, including 4,754 Missourians, 95 in Franklin County.

Since March, 16 million Americans have contracted the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statewide, more than 350,000 people have tested positive, and in Franklin County the number who have tested positive since March topped 6,000 Tuesday.

Friesz said thoughts of his co-workers laboring in the intensive care unit and his family members helped calm his nerves about receiving the vaccine.

“I couldn’t let myself chicken out,” said Friesz, who interacts with 10 to 13 patients each day as an operating room nurse. “I am doing it for my wife, my daughter, and I am doing it for my community.”

What Is the Vaccine?

The Pfizer vaccine requires two injections — the second one 21 days after the first. 

According to the CDC, the vaccine provides instructions for a person’s cells to make a “piece of the ‘spike protein’ that is unique” to COVID-19. After the piece of the spike protein is made, the cell breaks down the instruction strands from the vaccine and disposes of it using enzymes in the cell. The strand never enters the cell’s nucleus or affects genetic material, and it does not harm the vaccinated person. Once displayed on the cell surface, the spike protein causes the immune system to begin producing antibodies which means the immune system is primed to protect against future infection.

“There is some information and disinformation out there ... People are worried the vaccine will change your genetics, which it is not. People say you can get the virus from this vaccine, which you can’t because there is no viral particles in this vaccine,” Riechers said. “I think as far as the methodology of the vaccine, this is probably one of the safest types of vaccines we have.”

Staff Express Confidence

The seven health care workers interviewed by The Missourian had different sentiments about the vaccine’s distribution, but all shared confidence in its effectiveness. 

“I don’t have any concerns that the trials were done too quickly, or that they cut corners, which is why I am here today getting vaccinated,” Mohart said. “It is why, as soon as I can, I will vaccinate my children. I truly believe in the safety of these human trials.”

Also expressing confidence in the vaccine were Riechers and Sharma, who both received their first vaccine dose Tuesday. 

“I had no qualms about getting the vaccine whatsoever,” Sharma said. “I think the data is just overwhelming ... the vaccines are far exceeding anybody’s expectations.” 

Sharma and other hospital personnel in the gastrointestinal department routinely come in close contact with the saliva of patients who have contracted COVID-19. 

While they are confident of the vaccine’s effectiveness, Sharma, Riechers, Mohart and nurse Rachel Kertz, who is the lab manager for the gastrointestinal department, said they could understand why some may have doubts. 

“I too was a little nervous. But after doing my research and talking with people who are experts in this field, my nerves calmed, and I was excited to get this done,” said Kertz, the second hospital employee to receive the vaccine. “I appreciate that people are concerned, but this (vaccine) is something that will save lives. Especially in this day, you have to turn to the experts. The CDC’s sole purpose is to keep Americans healthy and safe. They do not have an ulterior motive. They are about facts and science.”

Mohart cautioned people from believing everything they read on social media. 

“So much of what I have seen out there could not be further from the truth,” Mohart said. “I would encourage (people) to call the hospital so that we can get them in touch with someone who can give them accurate information. I have no ulterior motive. I have nothing to gain from someone getting vaccinated other than it is the right thing to do for our community.”

Herd Immunity Hinges On Public

Local physicians say developing herd immunity depends on the community’s willingness to be vaccinated. 

“This pandemic has represented a threat to our country and to our citizens in ways we could never have imagined,” Mohart said. “Let’s not wait. Let’s not fight over this. ... Let’s do what our forebears and past generations have done — let’s be selfless, excellent citizens and do what we can to help get one another through this time. That means getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and staying home if we are sick.”  

To achieve herd immunity, doctors say at least 60 percent of the community will need to be vaccinated, but they are cautiously optimistic that Franklin County could post a vaccination rate of 70 percent or 80 percent. 

“That would tell us here at the hospital that people are not only taking their own health seriously but their community’s. Vaccinations are how we win this war,” Riechers said. “To me, getting vaccinated feels like the most patriotic thing to do.”

Looking Ahead

Riechers, Mohart and Sharma agree historians will consider the COVID-19 vaccine as a pivotal moment in the pandemic, much like the distribution of the polio vaccine in the 1950s. 

They also say the continued use of face masks and the distribution of the vaccine is the country’s and Franklin County’s best chance to return to a pre-COVID-19 way of life.

“I want to be able to sit in a room and have a human connection with someone,” Sharma said. “I hope that day comes really soon.”

Riechers also is looking ahead to when COVID-19 is just a memory but said the day is not here yet. 

“Just like when we landed at Normandy, World War II was not over,” he said. “This war’s end will start when more people get vaccinated, so today is our D-Day.”