Symbolic choices for first five to receive Covid-19 vaccine


A Roseland Community Hospital doctor proudly displays his vaccination card alongside his name tag after getting his Covid-19 jab. — AFP

The 975 coveted doses of the Covid-19 vaccine that arrived with a police escort on Dec 18 (2020) created a new challenge for Roseland Community Hospital in Chicago, United States, in a year that has been overrun by them.

Like other medical centres across the US in recent days, Roseland was tasked with deciding which of its hundreds of employees – for reasons both practical and symbolic – would be the first to get the injection they’ve all needed since the pandemic began.

The Far South Side hospital, which treats patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay, has carried a tremendous weight over the past 11 months.

As the Roseland neighbourhood has suffered a Covid-19 death rate two-thirds greater than the Chicago average, the staff opened a 40-bed Covid-19 ward, provided inpatient care to 320 people and conducted more than 25,000 tests in a community that has long suffered from the city’s healthcare inequities.

It hasn’t always gone smoothly.

When a pregnant woman with Covid-19 died after failing to be quickly triaged upon arrival, the state cited the hospital for several issues related to its handling of the virus.

The hospital has said it has worked to address the issues.

The hospital believes it will receive enough doses to vaccinate its 600 employees and contractors, including the estimated 25% who have expressed reluctance about getting the injections.

Each vial contains about five shots, so Roseland president and chief executive officer Tim Egan wanted the first five recipients to be a reflection of the many faces who have contributed to the fight.

Two of the picks are, most obviously, a doctor and a nurse who have been treating Covid-19 patients from the start.

His other three selections – a housekeeper, an engineer and a medical lab scientist – are employees who have jobs that may not grab headlines, but who have allowed the hospital to wage a public health battle unlike any other in the past century.

“It takes an army to win a war and we’ve had this army on the frontlines since day one,” Egan said.

“It’s not just doctors and nurses who are doing heroic work, it’s all across the board.

“We are so appreciative of the dedication of all our professionals.

“We want them all to know that they’re valued, and we want them protected.”

Here are Roseland’s first five:

> The chief nursing officer

Gil Jean has a secret that she has kept from her nursing staff since the pandemic began.

She was scared of the virus too.

As Roseland’s chief nursing officer, she didn’t want her staff to know just how deeply worried she was about their safety, the alarming pace at which the virus took patients’ lives, or even her own health.

She kept those feelings buried, she said, until she got home and could cry in private.

“I feel as a leader, I always need to be strong for them and tell them how much I appreciate them.

“There were some really, really hard days, and they were ama-zing,” she said as her voice choked with emotion.

“And I know they were scared.

“I know this because I was scared too.”

Her staff’s fears also played a role in her decision to receive one of the hospital’s first vaccinations.

Several nurses have already told her they do not want to receive the shots until they first see how other people react – a reluctance that has alarmed hospital leadership and spurred them into action.

Roseland executives, including Egan, have been passing out flyers about the importance of the vaccine in the days before it arrived, hoping to sway the sceptics.

About a quarter have indicated they don’t want the vaccine, Egan said.

Beyond wanting to protect his staff, he worries about the message it would send to the neighbourhood if hospital employees are too scared to be vaccinated.

He understands their fears – fuelled by both the country’s history of inhumane experiments on Black Americans and distrust in a system that has allowed deadly healthcare disparities – but he believes this is the only way to blunt the virus’ spread.

Jean shares Egan’s concerns, so she volunteered to roll up her sleeve and receive the first of two shots on Dec 18 (2020).

She tells anyone who asks that she trusts the science and the scientists who approved the vaccine for emergency use.

“I want them to see me,” she said.

“I want them to know that I would never ask them to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. This is a time for leadership.”

> The head housekeeper

Seaverson, seen here in the hospital’s linens storeroom, makes it a point to talk to each patient in the rooms she helps clean and sanitise everyday. — Photos: TNSSeaverson, seen here in the hospital’s linens storeroom, makes it a point to talk to each patient in the rooms she helps clean and sanitise everyday. — Photos: TNS

As the hospital’s head housekeeper – formally known as the head environmental services worker – Linda Seaverson pushes aside concerns for her own safety each morning and heads to work in a community hit hard by the virus.

She says she never – not even in the pandemic’s deadliest moments – considered finding a different job.

“I care about people. I always have,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want someone to walk away from me when I needed them most, so I would never walk away from anyone else.”

Seaverson, 61, makes a concerted effort to be a cheerful, uplifting presence in the Covid-19 patients’ rooms each day.

Draped in full personal protective equipment (PPE), she chatters happily as she goes about cleaning, sanitising and collecting linens.

She even speaks to those who are too sick to answer, believing they can hear her and wanting them to know someone cares.

She always leaves with a promise to see the patient later, though she knows it’s a pledge she can’t necessarily keep.

Nothing, she says, is harder than later seeing an empty bed in a patient’s room.

“I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy.”

In keeping with her desire to help people, Seaverson has agreed to be among the first vaccinated at the hospital.

She initially had questions about its safety, but she says she has read enough about the dosage to feel comfortable with her decision.

She hopes people will follow her example and educate themselves about the importance of getting the shot.

“I was scared about getting it,” she said.

“But if I do it and get a good reaction, maybe it will help show other people it’s safe.

“I’m a people person, and all I ever want to do is help.”

> The emergency medical specialist

An exhausted Dr Tunji Ladipo returned home from work recently, thoroughly beaten by the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases and the overflowing emergency department it produced.

His 16-year-old daughter tried to cheer him by announcing that she too planned to become a doctor some day.

“Really?” he said, brightening. “You want to be a doctor like your dad?”

“No,” she quickly answered. “I want to be a doctor like Dr (Anthony) Fauci.”

On the eve of becoming part of the largest vaccination effort in American history, Dr Ladipo believes his teenager has it right.

After months and months of darkness, scientists are bringing us towards the light.

He says he will be thinking with gratitude of those scientists as the vaccine is injected into his arm.

“It’s a relief to know we have this coming,” he said.

“I’ve thought about this a lot, and the people who should be getting ‘hurrahs’ and ‘thank yous’ are the scientists who made this happen.

“The PhDs, the researchers, the graduate students who spent hours and days and months doing the same thing over and over again in their labs.

“We as a society really need to recognise that.”

> The medical lab scientist

Nevarez feels good that he is doing something positive for society by helping to process Covid-19 tests.Nevarez feels good that he is doing something positive for society by helping to process Covid-19 tests.

With a pandemic raging, Tony Nevarez decided he wanted to go back to a hospital laboratory.

He had left the field a few years earlier to work in environmental sciences, but he didn’t feel the same satisfaction there as he did in a medical setting.

Choosing to return to a hospital job, however, meant that he would be handling and testing samples to determine whether they contained the potentially deadly coronavirus.

He didn’t care.

He joined a private laboratory and was contracted to work at Roseland Community Hospital, which conducts about 250 tests a day.

“Don’t get me wrong. The risks of working in a hospital were always in the back of my mind,” the 29-year-old said.

“But I like helping people and this job is just more interesting.”

When Roseland started offering testing in mid-March (2020), it was one of the few Illinois sites that allowed patients to be tested without being in a car.

In a neighbourhood where many residents don’t have their own transportation, it was a crucial service.

The hospital also relaxed its rules on who could receive a test, giving it to anyone regardless of whether they had a doctor’s order, Covid-19 symptoms or an underlying condition that would make the patient vulnerable to the virus’s deadly grasp.

By the time Illinois state governor J.B. Pritzker declared testing available to anyone who is symptomatic, Roseland had already been doing its open testing initiative for two weeks.

From the start, Roseland staff have believed the tests offered the community some reassurance and a sense of control amid a virus that hit lower-income Black neighbourhoods harder than richer white ones in the city.

Nearly a year into pandemic, accessible testing remains one of the hospital’s core principles.

And Nevarez’s selection as one of the first five people vaccinated at Roseland is meant to reinforce that belief.

“It’s good to know I’m doing something positive for society,” he said.

“As a kid, I never could have imagined something like this, but this is really good way to make a living.

“I feel good about my job. I feel good about myself.”

> The hospital engineer

Moriarty, seen here in the hospital’s basement workshop, hopes that the vaccine will help hasten the return of things to normal.Moriarty, seen here in the hospital’s basement workshop, hopes that the vaccine will help hasten the return of things to normal.

Ask Dan Moriarty how it feels to be on the front lines of a pandemic and he’ll say he hasn’t given it much thought.

Truth be told, he’s been far too busy to contemplate such matters.

In the past year (2020), Moriarty has helped build a 40-bed Covid-19 ward at the hospital, installed more than 60 negative pressure systems in patient rooms and converted Roseland’s lobby into an overflow treatment area.

His most important project, however, was completed recently when he transformed a meeting space into a vaccination command post that allows the doses to be stored nearby at their ultracold temperatures and provides employees with privacy as they get their shots.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to keep the place safe,” he said.

“There were a lot of overnights and extra hours to make it happen, but everyone pulled together and made sure it got done.”

The job required considerable brainstorming, as the engineering staff regularly conferred on how to best handle their construction projects while adhering to safety protocols.

Even a routine job like changing an air filter required full PPE that made him look like he was responding to a hazmat spill.

Moriarty, who has worked at the hospital since May 2019, said he did everything he could to protect himself from the virus.

It wasn’t so much the idea of contracting the illness that drove his vigilance, but the fear that he could infect someone else.

“At the end of the day, everyone had a job to do,” he said.

“You just do it as safely as possible.”

Moriarty hopes the newly-available vaccines hasten the return of things he once took for granted, such as going to a restaurant or spending an entire eight-hour shift without a mask on his face.

He’d also like to go to bed each night without worrying that he unknowingly infected someone with a potentially deadly virus.

“I just want things to go back to normal,” he said.

“It’s what everyone is hoping for, isn’t it?” – By Stacy St. Clair and Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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