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Texas Health Care Workers Report Relief And Exhaustion As Vaccines Roll Out During A Surge In Cases

UT-Austin medical student Jared Moon receives the COVID-19 vaccine Pfizer BioNTech during injections to healthcare workers at Dell Medical School on Dec. 15, 2020. (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)
Gabriel C. Pérez
UT-Austin medical student Jared Moon receives the COVID-19 vaccine Pfizer BioNTech during injections to healthcare workers at Dell Medical School on Dec. 15, 2020. (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)

Hospitals in Central Texas began vaccinating their staff against COVID-19 last week. For many, the vaccine represents an end in sight to what has been a grueling year for frontline health care workers. But it also comes as the state is experiencing a surge in cases.

Tiffany Holder, a nurse in the emergency department of Dell Seton Medical Center, was one of the first people at the hospital to get vaccinated. She said she got a heads up a few weeks ago that she would be eligible for the first round.

Around 5:45 p.m. Thursday, she and a coworker went to get their shots.

“We were going and we had some nervous energy,” Holder said. “We were excited. It felt very surreal to us and we were talking about that.”

The setup looked like a typical health care setting, she said. It reminded her of the kind of thing you’d see for flu vaccinations.

“We filled out our consents and our paperwork and we went and got shot like we would anything else,” she said. “And then I just went back to work and finished my shift.”

Even though the experience was pretty unremarkable, the vaccinations represent a lot for health care workers like Holder who have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Jason Reichenberg, president of Ascension Medical Group Texas, said he can feel the difference.

“It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “I was walking around the hospital and you can really feel the sense of the relief as you walk around interacting with people that there is going to be a time in the near future where our staff won’t have to worry so much about getting COVID.”

Like many health care workers, Reichenberg has been worried about getting his family sick throughout all this. Once he gets the second dose of the vaccine, he said, he will start to breathe a little easier.

And while there is some hope, Reichenberg said, there is also a lot of concern.

“I’d say health care professionals are all seeing this as a rollercoaster right now – an emotional rollercoaster,” he said. “We are seeing a huge increase in the number of patients being admitted to the hospital, being seen in our clinics very sick.”

State officials say cases are skyrocketing in Texas following the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Our staff is exhausted,” Reichenberg said. “This has been a very long time for us to be continually seeing patients who are at risk for dying.”

It’s hard to estimate when all hospital staff will be vaccinated – let alone the general population. Ascension Seton has more than 14,000 associates at its hospitals and clinics in Central Texas.

Reichenberg said he’s urging everyone – in and outside the hospital – to be patient as the vaccine continues to get distributed.

Holder said she’s exhausted and has noticed more people not following necessary precautions. Public health officials say they expect COVID cases will continue to rise unless people stay home, wear masks and keep a distance from people outside their households.

The vaccine provides some relief, she said, if only emotionally for now.

“I think being able to see that this is not going to be forever,” she said, “and that we will be able to look back on this as something that was a memory, as opposed to the present, feels good.”

Got a tip? Email Ashley Lopez at alopez@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.

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Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016.