Chazy nurse first in North Country to receive vaccine

Karen O’Connor, left, an ICU nurse from Chazy, becomes the first person in the North Country region to be vaccinated on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Administering the vaccine is CVPH Nursing Director Carly Haag, right. (Provided photo — Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital)

PLATTSBURGH — Karen O’Connor, an intensive care nurse at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, became the first person in the North Country region to receive the new Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday, Dec. 15.

O’Connor, 72, of Chazy, was the first to be vaccinated at the hospital where she has worked for the past 50 years. CVPH has been designated a regional hub, and received 975 doses of the newly-approved vaccine on Tuesday, some of which will be distributed to other hospitals around the region.

Dr. William Bunn, CVPH’s ICU director, estimated about 10 of the hospital’s staff would be vaccinated on Tuesday. Bunn was the second person to be vaccinated after O’Connor.

As CVPH Nursing Director Carly Haag readied the first vaccine, O’Connor broke the nervous tension both health care professionals were feeling with a joke.

“I said, ‘Carly, is that vaccine thought out?'” O’Connor recalled later. “We’re both a little stressed, I think, but she’s so good, and she’s a friend of mine.”

“I feel good”

The whole process took about a few minutes, between O’Connor signing paperwork that helps the state keep track of who has been vaccinated, and actually receiving the first of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

“I feel good,” she told reporters afterward. Reporters were not allowed to cover this historic event in person for safety reasons, but O’Connor’s vaccination was livestreamed.

“I feel as good as when I came in. I’m excited about it, I’m excited to get the second dose,” she said. “That gets me much closer to going to visit my family and being a lot more safe when I visit my mom.”

O’Connor was chosen to receive the vaccine first based on state Department of Health guidance.

She volunteered a few weeks ago, and was told by her superiors that they were going to vaccinate the oldest nurses first.

“And I said, ‘yep, okay,'” O’Connor said. “That’s why I’m here. I wanted to do it, whether I’m the oldest or not.

“I wanted to show my colleagues who are much younger … it’s okay for me to get it. You can watch my progress and see how I’m doing. I’ve had questions, but I settled my heart with them a long time ago,” she added.

Asked about her experience working in the ICU during a global pandemic, O’Connor said that she’s always loved coming to work.

“Coming into work with COVID being here, the AIDs pandemic, or some other flu… I never thought of the disease as being something that I didn’t want to face,” she said. “I certainly wanted to help take care of patients to help them through it, help them live and reunite with their families. I just didn’t think anything about it. It was my job, it was my career and I loved doing it.”

She’s heartened by patient outcomes they’ve seen at the hospital.

“They are all very ill, but they recover,” she said of the COVID-19 patients in the area that have been hospitalized. “I think our totals here for patients not surviving is very low, which makes us very enthusiastic on our parts, and our hospital.”

Vaccine rollout

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine on Friday, triggering a historic vaccine distribution effort nationwide as the United States surpassed 300,000 COVID-19-related deaths. A new milestone was reached on Monday, Dec. 14 when an intensive care nurse in Queens, Sandra Lindsay, became the first New Yorker — and first American — to receive the new Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

“By the end of this week, the Pfizer vaccine will have arrived at a total of 90 hospitals statewide,” state Department of Health spokeswoman Jill Montag said Dec. 14. “Arrival times will vary. We are in contact with facilities across the state to create an efficient schedule for vaccinations to occur as safely and quickly as possible.”

Side effects

Pfizer and BioNTech said that its late-stage trial showed its vaccine to be 95% effective after the second dose is administered. The vaccine has no reported serious side effects and an ability to prevent severe COVID-19 in older people, the New York Times reported.

That doesn’t mean there were no side effects, however. The trial did show that many participants experienced mild issues, such as aches, chills, fatigue and fevers, according to the Times.

Bunn said no one in the ICU was much concerned about these side effects.

“Over 60,000 people have already received the vaccine,” he said, referencing the vaccine’s clinical trials. “There really has not been that much trouble.”

Bunn said he likes the odds of getting side effects from the vaccine “a lot better” than his odds of contracting COVID-19.

Getting the vaccine doesn’t mean that he won’t be at risk of exposing the coronavirus, only that he won’t get sick with COVID-19, he cautioned.

“Hopefully this will help protect me if I’m unfortunate enough to come in contact with COVID-19,” he said. “I need to continue to safely distance and wear protective equipment from here on out. Even if I do have a vaccine, I could get an asymptomatic case and spread it to someone else.”

“This is my job”

Bunn and his co-workers have been on the frontlines for months in this fight against COVID-19.

After receiving his first vaccine dose, asked how it felt to come into work each day knowing there’s a risk of exposure, and asked what keeps him going, Bunn pointed to his colleagues.

“I think there’s a difference between fear and courage,” he said. “Courage really is the ability to face your fears and move on with what has to be done. I know my co-workers, especially in the ICU and ER, they have stepped up in an incredible way. I have to come into that room maybe once a day or so. The nurses are in and out of that room all day. The people who are cleaning our ICUs are getting tremendous exposures. We’re all just going about our business. Yes, it’s been difficult. Yes, it’s been stressful. We’re leaning on each other.

“It’s a calling,” Bunn said. “This is my job. This is what we’ve done our entire lives, and it’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

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