Wednesday, January 20, 2021
St. Luke’s Doctors Get an Early Christmas Present in COVID Vaccines
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Dr. Terry O’Connor and Dr. Deb Robertson show off their vaccination cards—proof that they are on their way to receiving 95 percent protection against the coronavirus.
   
Thursday, December 24, 2020
 

STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK

PHOTOS BY JOY PRUDEK

COVID GRAPH BY PAUL RIES

Dr. Deb Robertson, director of Emergency Services for St. Luke’s Wood River, was brimming with excitement as the nurse jabbed a needle containing a dose of hope into her arm.

 
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“I have to say it wasn’t even painful,” said Dr. Deb Robertson.
 

“This is the best end to 2020 I can imagine!” she said. “After a crazy year, it leaves me feeling very hopeful that we are going to get this pandemic under control and return to a normal life.”

Robertson and Dr. Terry O’Connor, who have led the fight against COVID-19 at St. Luke’s Wood River, were among the first Wood River Valley health care workers to get vaccinated when they got their early Christmas presents at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

They were also among the first Idahoans to get the newly approved Moderna vaccine.

“With all the bad news this year, it was nice looking forward to something that was on the calendar that represents a positive development in regards to responding to the challenge of the disease,” said O’Connor, an emergency room physician at St. Luke’s. “We’ve all been challenged to try to look and find the positive things in our lives in 2020 and this is a nice positive thing for me to focus on at the end of the year.

 
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“It makes me feel happy it has arrived,” Dr. Terry O’Connor said of the vaccine.
 

“It’s certainly not the end, but the beginning of the end for this struggle we are in right now.”

St. Luke’s Wood River had originally been slated to receive a shipment of Pfizer vaccines earlier in the week. But plans changed as it became apparent Idaho would get a shipment of 28,000 Moderna vaccines to divvy up among the state’s seven health districts. The Moderna vaccine is better suited for rural hospitals like St. Luke’s Wood River and St. Luke’s McCall because it does not need the ultra-cold -80 degree refrigeration like Pfizer’s does. Consequently, it’s easier to transport and easier to store.

Six hundred doses of the Moderna vacine were flown to St. Luke's Wood River and St. Luke's McCall by Air St. Luke's Wednesday morning.

Robertson said she had been counting down the hours waiting for what she and O’Connor were calling  V Day or Vaccination Day.

 
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Idaho reported 1,391 new cases of coronavirus on Wednesday for a total of 133,985. Nine more Idahoans have died of COVID for a total of 1,324 deaths. Blaine County notched five new cases for 1,538 total. To date 6,538 vaccine doses have been administered.
 

“I’ve been extremely excited,” she said. “I was a little skeptical or concerned a couple months ago. But now there is great data that supports getting this vaccine both from a safety standpoint and an efficacy standpoint. The expert opinion is that this is a safe vaccine.”

The vaccines that experts say will end the pandemic are the first salvo against a nightmare that began in mid-March when the Wood River Valley overnight became the nation’s hot spot for what was then a new and extremely contagious virus.

“COVID 19 has been such a hard existence now for many months dealing with PPE and all the different ways the disease presents,” said O’Connor. “But the first week was the most memorable. Seeing it for the first time, seeing how quickly it decimated our staff and our ability to care for our patients. Seeing how we thought we were prepared and yet how quickly it overran us. It overran our capacity for care, which is quite an alarming moment for any of us in our careers as emergency physicians. We train for a pandemic to happen sometime in our career, but it’s a very different thing to actually live it.”

Robertson concurred.

“March was such a blur. I’d never seen so many extremely sick people in such a short amount of time. It was eye opening and we knew so little about the best way to manage these cases. As Terry says, we were looking through a fire hose of information trying to extract any piece of information that might help put out the fire. We were one of the first places that really got hit hard so there was very little information to go off of. We’d look at a patient and think: Could this be COVID or could this be something else? We were in kind of a daze trying to figure things out.”

O’Connor spent 80 percent of his time in those early days reading research, figuring out how to share it  with colleagues and working on systems to protect the community as he took the lead medical role with Blaine County commissioners and other community leaders.

“Never in my life have I had to do so much work outside of the emergency department,” he said. “I spent 20 percent of my time actually taking care of patients, which is the job I get paid for.”

Robertson said St. Luke’s has done a great job of keeping beds open and managing resources, even as new cases and hospitalizations have spiked.

“We’re busy but we have capacity,” she said. “I have not worked a shift where I have not been able to transfer someone to a higher level of care that has needed it. But the whole system is cutting back on elective surgeries and doing all kinds of other maneuvers to create capacities. I don’t think any administrator is getting a lot of sleep right now because they are constantly having to micromanage and figure out the next step. We’re very aware that our partners and colleagues in Twin Falls and Boise, Meridian and Nampa are suffering through a lot worse.”

But Wednesday’s vaccine has given both Robertson and O’Connor a psychological boost knowing things are going to improve.

“I’m much happier knowing that this is the beginning of now having protection against this virus,” O’Connor said.

St. Luke’s did not specify how many Wood River employees got vaccinated on Wednesday. But, by the end of the day, 2,418 employees in all of St. Luke’s hospitals had been vaccinated.

More than a million American have received the Pfizer vaccine so far. Some 9.4 million Pfizer doses  have been shipped out, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And Moderna shipped out 5.9 million doses this week

Idaho has received 23,700 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The first doses in Idaho are earmarked for some 130,000 front-line healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, as directed by the Idaho Vaccine Committee.

The South Central Public Health District and St. Luke’s Health Systems have not received enough vaccine  to cover the first tier or priority recipients, said Information Officer Brianna Bodily. Consequently, it will take time before vaccination effectively slows the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

 

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