A crowd of medical staff at Mercy Regional Medical Center burst into applause at 12:02 p.m. Wednesday as a doctor received the COVID-19 vaccine – the first dose to be administered in La Plata County.
The vaccine, developed by Pfizer and its German Partner BioNTech, adds a vital new tool to the nation’s fight against the coronavirus. To many, the arrival of the vaccine seems like the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
Across Colorado, vaccine doses are expected to arrive on a weekly basis starting this week, reaching the most high-risk people first and the general public by mid to late 2021. The very first doses go to medical workers with daily exposure risk, as well as long-term care facility staff members and residents.
In Durango, about 14 Mercy staff members paused, after months filled with frenzied activity, to take note of the historic moment.
“There it is,” said one of the staff members in the quiet room. The movie “Elf” played in the background.
Seconds later, the group cheered: Jennifer Heinicke, an internal medicine doctor at the hospital, became the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in La Plata County.
“I’m feeling very emotional. This is an exciting, historic moment,” Heinicke said. “This is going to help keep our health providers healthy, so that we can take care of the community.”
Since Colorado’s first cases of the illness in March, La Plata County has reported 2,010 cases and 20 deaths among cases, with a rapid increase starting in November.
Heinicke and other medical workers have been garbed in personal protective equipment and wearing face coverings constantly. Heinicke has been limiting her activities and takes extra precautions like showering twice after shifts and before spending time with family.
“I have a daughter that has cystic fibrosis, and I worry every day about bringing it home,” she said. “It helps to feel like I’m protecting her and I’m protecting my family, too.”
In Southwest Colorado, including La Plata County, 975 vaccines arrived Tuesday. Mercy planned to administer 475 doses this week – 100 of them Wednesday.
The doses will go to a variety of hospital workers, beginning with those who have regular exposure to COVID patients. Those employees can include nurses and doctors, but also people who deliver food to patients.
The hospital’s original allocation was 360 doses, but Animas Surgical Hospital shared some of its 115 doses with the larger hospital.
In its first shipment, Colorado received 46,800 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The second expected shipment of 95,600 doses is developed by Moderna, which is expected to receive federal approval as soon as Friday.
After the first phase of recipients have been vaccinated, Colorado will move on to health care workers with less direct contact with COVID-19 patients and other front-line workers, such as firefighters, correctional facility employees and hospice workers.
The vaccine will take months to reach the general population, with estimates varying between early summer and late fall.
Public health and medical professionals emphasized that community members should continue following COVID-19 precautions, such as wearing a face covering in public, social distancing and limiting interactions with people outside a household.
“It’s a monumental time and a great way to close out a very challenging year,” said Stephanie Clements, chief nursing officer at Mercy. “It’s certainly super important to continue to practice all of the precautions that we’ve been living through.”
If people have questions about their eligibility to receive the vaccine, they should talk to their primary care doctor, she said.
The atmosphere in the vaccination room at Mercy was professional as medical staff checked the registration system, prepared the doses and set up the post-vaccination recovery room, a precaution in case of allergic reactions.
But staff members were overwhelmed and excited.
“I’m just excited that maybe this is the first step to going back to a normal life at some point,” said Angela Whitten, the nurse who administered the first vaccine. “Hopefully as we get our associates protected, that will lead to the community being more protected.”