The two large hospital systems in Billings are busy administering nearly 2,000 COVID-19 vaccines this week. The first jabs were met with joy and celebration.
Hundreds of St. Vincent Healthcare frontline workers and a handful of Billings Clinic workers received the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 15.
Emergency medicine physician Douglas Parker is the first up at St. Vincent’s.
He holds up the dark blue sleeve of his scrubs and a nurse sticks his upper arm in front of a group of excited onlookers.
“Wait, when are you going to give me the shot? I didn’t feel it. You sure? Okay," Parker says.
It’s been ten months since the state announced its first positive cases of COVID-19. Parker hadn’t expected to see a vaccine in action so soon.
“I can’t believe it. It’s so terrific. We’ve been dreaming of this day, and look at what they’ve done. So fast," Parker says.
He says the vaccine won’t change how he approaches his job. He’ll continue to wear a mask and follow safety protocol.
“But it just gives all of us more more hope to spread to other people," Parker says.
The number of people in the building swelled mid afternoon, when St. Vincent opened up to other frontline workers eligible for the vaccine. Paramedic Amber Collins hangs out in the waiting room after receiving her shot.
“Felt like a needle," Collins says with a laugh.
Collins hopes the vaccine will protect those around her from experiencing what she did when she and her family were infected.
“Both my girls had it. My husband and I had it. And it’s really not something to take lightly. I probably should have gone to the hospital, but we make the worst patients, so I didn’t. But it took extra medication to get me through it," Collins said.
Another person in the waiting room is Fort Peck Assiniboine tribal member and St. Vincent’s environmental services technician Victoria Adams.
“I’m really excited for this," Adams says.
With vaccines in limited amounts, hospitals are prioritizing staff who come in direct contact with COVID-19 patients and that sometimes includes support staff. Adams’ job description covers disinfecting patients’ rooms and public areas and cleaning up hazardous waste.
She says she wants to lead by example so that her tribe and family feel comfortable also getting the vaccine.
“Y’know, I just want my family to see it’s safe. You’re gonna be alright. Don’t be afraid," Adams says.
A few blocks away at the Billings Clinic, Michelle Buffington is one of five health care workers who received the vaccine in front of an atrium full of masked bystanders. Buffington grew up in western Montana and has been a respiratory therapist for roughly three decades.
Similar to the flu vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says side effects of the Pfizer vaccine may include things like muscle pains or headache. Buffington says the risk of possible side effects occurred to her.
“It concerned me a little bit at first, but with the amount of patients and the severity of patients that we see and the death we see on a daily basis, I think it’s the better choice," Buffington says.
She remembers one patient who tried to call his wife before being put on a ventilator and unable to speak.
“And she didn’t pick up the phone and we weren’t really, because of his status, able to wait. And then she called afterwards and so, it’s pretty heartbreaking for ‘em," Buffington says.
Many of the frontline workers who received a vaccine Tuesday said they’re ready to move on and get through the pandemic.
Pulmonary critical care physician Dave Pucci says the last year has been the most challenging period of his career and he treated a colleague who passed away from the virus. Now, he feels like the end is in sight.
“The data on this is sound and it’s really going to be what helps get us back on our feet," Pucci says.