Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor was one of the first people to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine when shipments started arriving in Louisville, Kentucky earlier this week. Like many of her colleagues, she was excited to get the injection, but the moment quickly turned “bittersweet.”
As soon as she received the drug, she learned that she had lost her 27th patient to the coronavirus. According to the state’s public health website, more than 2,000 Kentuckians have already died from COVID-19, and more are added to the list every day.
Dr. Briones-Pryor is using this experience to urge her fellow residents to take the pandemic seriously, even as the vaccine is being distributed.
Distributing the First Doses in Kentucky
Healthcare providers were thrilled to get the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Gov. Andy Beshear was on hand at the University of Louisville Hospital on Monday morning to witness the first inoculation. The governor was clearly emotional watching the first dose being administered to a frontline worker, calling the vaccine “nothing short of a modern medical miracle.”
The first shipments came as several hospitals across the state are nearing capacity. Kentucky is currently dealing with its highest number of coronavirus patients since the start of the pandemic. Patients not in the ICU must now be two-to-a-room.
Dr. Ashley Montgomery-Yates, assistant chief medical officer at the University of Kentucky Hospital, says she wishes she could send a message to people who aren’t taking the threat seriously.
“You should come to the unit and see the patients of families that are sitting at home worrying, the health care workers that are up there day in and day out caring for these patient populations,” she said. “I mean, we have over 100 patients in our hospital on any given day that are here because of a primary COVID diagnosis. And for us, it’s been a challenge to navigate a healthcare system that’s already very busy and to incorporate and care for that population.”
She’s tired of hearing people complain about having to wear masks and avoid large crowds when her staff is bogged down by layers of PPE. She says it takes her and her team about 12 minutes every time they have to enter or exit a room as they suit up with the proper gear.
“I think people complain about wearing their cloth mask at the grocery store, but I want you to imagine wearing an N-95 with another thing and a thing over your head and noise and all that,” Montgomery-Yates said. “It’s hard and health care is a hard job, you know, to be a bedside nurse is it a grueling task some days, and so to do all of that in all of this with gloves and trying to start an IV with two pairs of gloves on, I mean just those details I think people don’t think about it’s just added an extra layer of stress to every day they work.”
As relieved as she and her staff are to receive the vaccine, there’s still more work to be done.
“It’s amazing and it’s going to be a different world in a few months, but we’ve got to get through this and I don’t want to lose a whole lot of Kentuckians in between now and then,” she said.
A Glimmer of Hope at a Dark Moment
As others in the hospital were celebrating, Dr. Briones-Pryor was dealing with a medical emergency. She told reporters that she had just transferred a COVID-19 patient to the ICU the day before. As she walked over to the next wing of the hospital to receive her dose of the vaccine, an alert went out saying the patient was in distress.
“A nurse I was talking to said, ‘I hope it’s not her,'” Dr. Briones-Pryor recalls.
She then rolled up her sleeve to get the shot, but just a few seconds later, things took a turn for the worse. “As I was about to walk off the floor, they told me, they said, ‘Dr. Val, it’s our patient.’ And so, as I was walking, they texted me and told me that she didn’t make it.”
That was the 27th patient she’s lost to the virus. She’s been working in the hospital’s ICU ward for over ten months, watching patients come and go. It was a heart-breaking reminder that the pandemic is still very much alive and well, despite the recent good news.
Afterward, she says she experienced zero side effects, except a bit of soreness in her upper right arm where the shot was administered. Getting the vaccine showed her the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s going to be several months before we get there.
“To really beat this virus, we have to work together, which means we all have to do the right thing,” she said.