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‘Exciting Day’ for Rochester as Vaccinations Begin for Health Care Workers

Patti Singer

Aijah Cook, left, was among Rochester General Hospital health care workers who received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Video by Patti Singer

Prentice McKnight rolled up his sleeve to be among the first health care workers at Rochester Regional Health to receive a vaccine against COVID-19.

Prentice McKnight, who works in environmental services at Rochester General Hospital, receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

“I’m excited,” the environmental services worker said as he was among about 20 frontline workers at Rochester General Hospital to receive the initial vaccine authorized to try to prevent infection from the novel coronavirus.

“I want to be an example for the people that are unsure or unwilling, who don’t want to get it,” he said. “I trust in science. The science said it’s safe. I believe everything is going to work out.”

Rochester received its first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 14 and 15 and according to protocol from the state Department of Health, they went to frontline healthcare workers most at risk of contracting the virus.

“Today is an exciting day for our community,” Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health said during a news conference Dec. 15 to announce the vaccine’s arrival. “We’ve been through a long nine months together.”

Mendoza is scheduled to receive his first dose of vaccine on Dec. 16. He also is a family medicine doctor at Highland Hospital and he said he was chosen by a random process used to select providers at high risk. His vaccination will not be public, according to a spokeswoman for the health department.

The vaccine is being heralded as the light at the end of the tunnel, but for many people that light right now is a candle and not a floodlamp.

Depending on the supply, it could be summer until the general population has the opportunity to get the vaccine. The early batches of the Pfizer-BioNTech and the soon-to-be expected Moderna vaccine are being doled out to health care workers in emergency and intensive care units and others who come in contact with people who have COVID, nursing home workers and residents, people with illnesses that put them at higher risk and first responders.

Availability also could depend on demand. According to the publication The Hill, which covers Congress, more than 25% of Americans said they will not take the vaccine.

“A lot people are scared,” said Aijah Cook, a licensed practical nurse in the RGH emergency department. “They think the government is out to get them. I think with proper research and proper education and knowledge, I think a lot of that would go away. But I don’t think the proper education is given, is readily available. If it were, I don’t think as many people would be afraid.”

She said people need facts so they can decide what is best for themselves and their family.

Monroe County will be developing an education campaign, County Executive Adam Bello said during the news conference. He said it will take into account people’s perceptions of the vaccine and be delivered in ways that are meaningful to diverse audiences. He also said the county is ensuring that as vaccine becomes available, it is equitably distributed.

The University of Rochester Medical Center vaccinated some high-risk employees on Dec. 14. Carlos Rosa, who works in transport at Strong Memorial Hospital, was the first person in Rochester to receive the vaccine outside of a clinical trial.

“I’m looking forward to this so I can lead the way and be closer to my family,” Rosa said in a video supplied by URMC. “I’ve been very distant because of COVID and I feel I’m taking the right steps so I can back to them. COVID really destroyed the interaction I was having with my family.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Clinical trials were held in Rochester. The Moderna vaccine also is expected to get emergency authorization. A third vaccine, from AstraZeneca, also could be in that pipeline.

Emergency use authorization is not the same as FDA approval. According to a fact sheet provided to people who receive the vaccine, the FDA may grant emergency use when there are no approved, adequate alternatives. The decision takes into account all the scientific evidence available that shows the vaccine may prevent COVID-19 during the pandemic and that benefits outweigh risks.

Cook said she talked to doctors in the emergency department about the vaccine and the more she looked into it, the more comfortable she became. “The good outweighs the bad,” she said.

She said she had an aunt who died from COVID. “If this prevents me from getting it, I’m all for it,” she said.

Regardless of manufacturer, the vaccine requires two doses given 21 days apart. Dr. Michael Apostolakos, chief medical officer at Strong Memorial and Highland hospitals, said initial data show a person gets some immunity 10 days after receiving the second dose.

He said data show the vaccine prevents people from getting sick with COVID-19. But it’s yet to be proven that the vaccine prevents transmission of the virus from one person to another.

“No matter whether a person has been vaccinated or not, for the time being we are recommending the community and those vaccinated to stay masked, stay socially distanced and keep your hands clean,” he said. “We’re going to be recommending that for some months.”

Health officials have said that at least 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve “herd immunity,” whereby the illness is not easily spread. Apostolakos said that prospect is months away.