The beginning of the end may be in sight.
That’s the hope at local hospitals, anyway, as the first shipments of the vaccine created by Pfizer-BioN-Tech against the novel coronavirus – the virus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19 – arrived Wednesday at Lea Regional Medical Center in Hobbs and Nor-Lea Hospital in Lovington, delivered by the New Mexico National Guard. A pharmacist at Lea Regional became the first person in Hobbs to receive an inoculation.
Pharmacist Kim Madrid said she “didn’t feel a thing” as her boss, Pharmacy Director Dr. Jennifer Pyeatt, injected her in the muscle of her left arm.
Later in the afternoon, Madrid was back at work, providing other Lea Regional staff with their inoculations.
“I’m feeling great,” Madrid said about an hour after becoming the first person in Hobbs to be vaccinated. “I don’t have any pain at the site of the injection, no headache, no nausea. I’m feeling pretty much the same as I was before getting the vaccine.”
Madrid also said she was excited to blaze the inoculation trail in Hobbs. She hoped she could act as an example for people who might be reticent about getting a shot.
“This means we’re moving forward, trying to get out of the COVID19 pandemic we’re in right now,” she said. “Hopefully, people will see I’m doing good and will get the vaccine.”
The journey to this spot has been a long one, though not as lengthy as it usually takes to develop vaccinations against diseases. It is the first step in an even longer journey, though, administrators at both hospitals said.
“Today, with the arrival of the COVID vaccination, we hope to be at the beginning of the end of this terrible pandemic,” said Dan Springer, Lea Regional CEO in an email.
Pyeatt and the rest of the Lea County COVID Vaccine Taskforce “have committed many hours over the past four months to make this day and the rollout of this vaccine not only possible but also coordinated, safe and successful.”
Davis Shaw, CEO of Nor-Lea Hospital, agreed. He said he didn’t know until just a few days ago how much of the vaccine the two hospitals would be receiving. Organizing everything as information from state and national health departments changed presented a logistical challenge, he said.
“Working with the task-force and Lea Regional and pulling this off is really quite a feat,” Shaw said. “Slowly but surely we’ll begin putting an end to this pandemic.”
It’s a process that’s entailed months of meetings with New Mexico Department of Health officials, Pyeatt said. While NMDH allocated 375 doses of the vaccine to Lea County in this first delivery, earlier estimates of how much the county would receive were greater, she said.
“The biggest challenge is we’ve had to do a lot of training,” Pyeatt said. “It was pretty intensive – we had to get provider agreements, the (hospital) director had to sign off.
“It’s been so much information, so much of it we didn’t know before,” she said. “Everybody knows about the flu, but this particular virus is so new, learning everything the virus can do to people, trying to teach people about the importance of getting the vaccine.”
The other challenge, Pyeatt and Shaw said, is the requirements of the vaccine itself. Manufactured with what’s known as Messenger RNA, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has stringent temperature requirements, they said. Nor-Lea Hospital went so far as purchase a special freezer capable of maintaining the temperatures needed, Shaw said.
“Our delivery (Wednesday) went pretty smoothly,” Shaw said.
Vaccines arrive in concentrated form and are mixed with a regular saline solution just prior to injection. Even so, once the vaccines are removed from the super-cold environment at one of five major hubs in the state, hospitals only have 120 hours – five days – to use the vaccine.
“And once you mix it, it’s only good for six hours,” Pyeatt said.
In addition to running the pharmacy at Lea Regional, Pyeatt’s other job for the past several days has been coordinating times for the vaccination clinic today and educating her coworkers at the hospital on why they should get the vaccine, she said. Being a new type of vaccine, people have had questions and even safety concerns.
Initial response to the call to sign up for the vaccination “was not high,” Pyeatt said. But, by teaching people about how the vaccine was made and what to expect, that response has increased, she said.
“I’m planning to get it so I can walk around and say ‘I got it and I’m still here,’” Pyeatt said. “As time goes on and people see others getting vaccinated and doing just fine, I hope people will realize the benefit of getting the vaccine far outweighs the risk of getting the disease.”
Andy Brosig may be reached at reporter1@.