Despite reporting its highest number of COVID-19 patients ever in the first week of the New Year, Northern Arizona Healthcare officials remain optimistic about battling the virus with the rollout of vaccines. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that Arizona is the No. 1 hotspot in the country, with a seven-day average of 121.8 new cases per 100,000 people. In early January, 80 COVID-positive patients were admitted at Flagstaff Medical Center (FMC); 30 were hospitalized at Verde Valley Medical Center (VVMC).
“As of this afternoon, Northern Arizona Healthcare has vaccinated 1,389 employees at Flagstaff Medical Center and 300 employees at Verde Valley Medical Center,” said Northern Arizona Healthcare Chief Quality Officer Dr. John Mougin on Tuesday, Jan. 5. “We are doing particularly well at FMC and looking to increase vaccination numbers at VVMC. Our goal is to get most of our employees that want the vaccination initiated with their first dose this week.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 15, medical staff members at Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) began receiving the first round of the Pfizer vaccine. NACA Family Health Center Medical Director Dr. George Hershey, D.O., smiled under his facemask as Verity Quiroz, R.N., administered the shot. He received the second dose on Jan. 5. “Doing my part, as everyone should, to eliminate this dastardly disease!” he said.
Other early injections were felt on Tuesday, Dec. 22, in Flagstaff and Cottonwood. Recipients across the Northland high-fived, cheered, elbow-bumped and even shed tears of gratitude as doses of the Moderna vaccine were administered.
“I am so excited,” said Flagstaff Medical Center Critical Care Nurse Stacey Payne, R.N. “I feel like our whole planet is coming together to give us hope to get out of this. I just really hope this will turn things around for us.”
Moments later, Dr. Kristina Kezar, M.D., from Verde Valley Medical Center, received her first dose. “This is a great way to end the year,” she said with damp eyes. “What a Christmas gift for me and the safety of my family and the community. I’m ecstatic. I’m honored.”
NACA Marketing and PR Officer Victoria Taylor, who says she experienced chills, body aches, lethargy and “a very sore arm” with the first round, was scheduled to receive the second dose in early January. “I 100% believe it is worth a couple of days of the side effects for the protective and preventative measures this vaccine offers us,” she said.
The vaccination arrived in Central and Northern Arizona as hospital officials around the state continued to juggle capacity and staffing issues. At Yavapai Regional Medical Center, numbers of patients in dedicated COVID-19 units continued to rise at both campuses.
YRMC spokesperson Kenneth Boush said hospital staff members are “exhausted” and have had to adapt daily to meet the ongoing demand of treatment. In late December, YRMC-Prescott was at 105% capacity; the Prescott Valley location was at 112%. There were 10 total COVID units between the two hospitals by Dec. 23.
“We are in historical territory here,” Boush said. “We’ve never seen this kind of patient flow come through our hospitals.”
Normally, both hospitals are set up to care for about 185 patients total. The hospital staff has repurposed units to add more beds. Many staff members have worked overtime for the past 10 months to help meet the demand of care.
However, the arrival of the vaccines has created noticeable optimism among healthcare workers. Dr. Mougin said the Moderna vaccine is a messenger RNA vaccine. “It’s not actually virus. It is a vaccine that induces cells in your body to produce a protein called the spike protein. Your body then recognizes the spike protein as something that’s not supposed to be there and creates an immune reaction against that. Then, if you are exposed to the virus in the future, your body will recognize that quickly as being something it needs to get rid of and that creates the immunity.”
Health officials say the Moderna vaccine is easier to store and has a longer shelf-life than the Pfizer vaccine. According to science research, both require two doses that need to be administered about a month apart to ensure full vaccination. The Arizona Department of Health will be informed each week of how many doses to expect. It will allot those, by county, based on the percentage of residents in a priority group. Distribution information will be reported back to the CDC.
The national COVID vaccine rollout has been slower than expected. Earlier goals set by Operation Warp Speed projected that 20 million people would have received their first dose by the end of 2020. In early January, however, the CDC reported only about 4.6 million people in the United States had received the injection. In Arizona, 411,025 doses of vaccine had arrived by early January. About 91,000 Arizonans have been vaccinated, which is just 22% of the supply.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, has called the rollout disappointing. He told ABC’s “This Week” Co-anchor Martha Raddatz that a sense of “normality” could occur by fall if the vaccination program is speeded up.
Despite busy hospitals in Arizona, healthcare professionals say they don’t want to discourage anyone with COVID-19 symptoms from seeking medical treatment. “Anyone in need of care, especially emergency care, should not hesitate to seek the care they need,” said Boush.
Meanwhile, health officials stress the continued importance of hand washing, masks and social distancing. “The hospital is still able to take patients, but we are asking the community for help,” said Mougin. “We need everyone in the community to do their part in reducing the spread of COVID and to flatten our curve so we can continue to have capacity.” FBN
By Bonnie Stevens and Brent Ruffner, FBN