‘Grateful:’ University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics employees receive first doses of COVID-19 vaccine

CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said the hospital expects to vaccinate 1,000 employees by the end of the week.


Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen

David Conway, a registered nurse in the emergency department at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, receives the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the hospital from registered nurse Rachel Lewis, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, on the 12th floor of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa.

Lillian Poulsen, News Reporter

Health care workers, long on the front lines facing COVID-19, are now the first in line to receive the first doses of the vaccine to prevent the disease.

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics employees were the first in the state Monday to receive the Pfizer BioNtech coronavirus vaccine. Employees who have been vaccinated so far are grateful and excited to see the light at the end of the tunnel from a pandemic that has exhausted hospitals and its employees. 

Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, which was studied in clinical trials at UIHC, was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11. 

UIHC Chief Executive Officer Suresh Gunasekaran said in a press conference on Monday they expect to give out about 100 doses by the end of the day and 1,000 by the end of the week. 

UIHC Chief Pharmacy Officer Mike Brownlee, one of the workers who received the vaccine on Monday, said he is thankful to receive this vaccine at this critical time in the pandemic.

“I feel grateful that we are able to provide this to our employees on the frontline. We’re humbled to be the first in the state and one of the first in the country to receive this vaccine,” Brownlee said. “Vaccinating our frontline workers is one of the most important things we can do to get ahead of this pandemic.”

Gunasekaran said the hospital hopes to vaccinate the hospital’s nearly 17,000 employees within the next few months, and plan to vaccinate employees from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, adding that the distribution of the vaccine is a momentous day in history and a milestone in the fight against COVID-19.

UIHC will deliver the vaccine to its employees in four tiered groups. The first phase prioritizes workers directly involved with COVID-19 patient care. The second phase will extend to UIHC’s main campus employees, and the third round will be administered to off-campus clinics. The fourth phase covers UIHC support staff not dealing directly with patients.

The first person in Iowa to receive the vaccine was UIHC emergency department nurse David Conway. Brownlee said this vaccine will reduce infections and hospitalizations across the state and nation, but Americans will still need to embrace safety precautions such as mask wearing and social distancing for several months.

“This vaccine will help us improve safety and reduce hospitalizations,” Brownlee said. “Let’s maintain our safety measures and we will have more information in the spring when we can loosen these safety measures.”

For the public, as previously reported by The Daily Iowan, Johnson County Public Health plans to distribute the vaccine in three phases. Phase one will  cover essential workers and high-risk groups, phase two for critical populations such as college students and staff, minorities, and incarcerated people. Phase three will be open to the entire community. 

According to UIHC, there are 44 COVID-19 adult patients in the hospitals, with a total of 1,142 adult patients since March. The current 14-day positivity rate in Iowa is 15.2 percent, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. Across the state, 3,373 Iowans have died because of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

The Food and Drug Administration is also looking at granting Emergency Use Authorization to the Moderna vaccine, Winokur said, which would make it possible for Iowa to receive more doses and be able to vaccinate people more quickly.

While this process has happened quicker than previous vaccines — the previous record was four years to develop a vaccine — the vaccine wasn’t as rushed as people think, UI Carver College of Medicine Executive Dean Patricia Winokur said. 

RELATED: University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics first hospital in the state to receive COVID-19 vaccine 

Since the start of the pandemic, about 44,000 people have participated in clinical trials around the world, with half receiving the active treatment, Winokur said. According to Time Magazine, the Food and Drug Administration required a minimum of two months to study the effects on patients. 

In a survey sent out to UIHC employees, 85 percent said they would be willing to receive the vaccine. Gunasekaran said UIHC is working to improve this number as employees begin receiving this vaccine. 

“We have the ability to speak with firsthand knowledge of what we’ve experienced and experts that can interpret the data that’s available,” Gunasekaran said. “We’ve tried to lead with the data, making sure people are aware of the results.”

RELATED: University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics expecting to vaccinate employees next week, pending FDA approval

People are less hesitant after they see their colleagues doing well when they’ve received the vaccine, Winokur said. Winokur, Gunasekaran, and Brownlee said they aren’t feeling any side effects and continued to work throughout the day.

She said it’s normal for people to experience mild to moderate symptoms, including a fever and body aches. Only about 9 percent of people who received the vaccine in clinical trials experienced side effects that disrupted their daily activity and only lasted for about 24 hours, she said. 

“[Side effects] are actually not a bad thing – suggests that your body is mounting an immune response to this vaccine and you want your body to do that,” Winokur said. “I don’t think people should be afraid of that. Most people will ride it out. We have not seen severe and long-lasting side effects.”

Although UIHC is excited about this momentous event in history, it’s important to continue safe practices for the next six to nine months, Gunasekaran said. Continued social distancing and mask wearing are important to keep the number of infections and hospitalizations down, he said.

“We know that the supply means it’s going to take the better part of a year to get it out to all Iowans and all Americans. The last thing we would want is for the introduction of the vaccine to cause Iowans to take this less seriously,” Gunasekaran said. “It’s really important for us to understand that the vaccination process has just begun — it is two doses, it is going to take many months for the majority of Americans to get vaccinated.”

Winokur said there is still research being done about whether this vaccine will stop the recipient from spreading the virus to others. According to Politico, research has shown that so far, 5 percent of people did not respond to the vaccine.

“It’s really important to continue to set that model for other people, because there are a lot of people out there that are not able to get the vaccine,” Winokur said. “We are continuing to recommend people be very diligent with all the recommendations we have made for several months now.”

Gunasekaran said UIHC is thankful for the support from Iowans and people across the nation throughout this pandemic.

“On behalf of the 17,000 employees here at UI Health Care, it’s been a really important day for us in our journey. You can’t emphasize how meaningful it has been for us to witness some of our employees being able to benefit from the vaccine and to begin that journey towards what we used to be,” Gunasekaran said. “We really appreciate the entire nation’s support in this effort, but we would be remiss if we didn’t thank the people of Iowa City for all the support they’ve given us throughout this entire period of time.”