Anesthesiologist Raymond Pla. Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez.

Barbara Neiswander, an emergency room nurse at the George Washington University Hospital, found out Sunday that she’d be among the first people in the nation to get the coronavirus vaccine. 

“They called and I said I would be delighted,” she tells City Paper. “I’m happy to finally get the vaccine and I am hoping that I can encourage other people to get the vaccine.” 

Neiswander became the first health care worker on Monday to get vaccinated at the hospital, which received 975 doses of the District’s first shipment. Her family couldn’t be more excited for her, seeing as she’s been working as a nurse for more than 30 years, the last nine months of which have been the most challenging. Her two daughters immediately emailed her after they saw her get the shot on television. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar stood nearby as a nurse practitioner rolled up Neiswander’s sleeve and gave her a shot on her left upper arm. It took mere seconds.  

“The injection itself was very painless. I couldn’t feel anything. I was surprised,” says Neiswander. “I feel that I am better prepared to take care of the patients who come in the ER now.” She expects to get her second and last shot within 21 days. 

To kick off the first week of vaccinations nationwide, GW Hospital and Howard University altogether received 1,700 of the District’s 6,825 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday. Children’s National Hospital, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and MedStar Washington Hospital Center receive their doses on Tuesday. Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is prioritizing health care workers. The general public will likely have to wait until spring to get vaccinated. (Dr. Anthony Fauci predicts the beginning of April.)

DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt says she expects to receive 8,000 doses from Virginia next week, seeing as so many of the District’s 85,000 health care workers reside in that state. The federal government shortchanged the District because it based the first allocation on population, not workforce, and 75 percent of the city’s health care workforce does not live here. Getting extra doses from neighboring states enables the District to move on to its second priority group—long term care residents— faster, says Nesbitt. 

Before Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, the mumps vaccine was the fastest ever developed and it took four years. The coronavirus vaccine is a remarkable scientific breakthrough. The speed has some hesitant about it, which comes as no surprise to lawmakers. They’ll be spending the next week sharing facts about the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccine. 

“Both the FDA and CDC concluded that the Pfizer vaccine is safe and effective for use in people 16 and older,” said Bowser during a Monday press conference. She added that more than 40,000 people participated in the Pfizer vaccine trial. “This means no one taking the vaccine going forward will be the first to take it,” Bowser said. She also said it is normal that some might experience mild side effects within the first few days of vaccination, such as sore arms, fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, and chills. 

Anesthesiologist Raymond Pla after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

A history of medical mistreatment, particularly against Black people, also leads some to be trepidatious. For this reason, Raymond Pla, an anesthesiologist who also got vaccinated on Monday, could understand why people are reluctant. “Your reasons are yours and they should be respected,” says Pla. “But the reality is this isn’t just the best way forward out of this pandemic, this is the only way forward—a pandemic that has hit Black and Brown communities particularly hard.” Pla was the only Black worker among the first five at GW Hospital to get vaccinated. By getting the vaccine, he hopes to reach people who see themselves in him. Maybe they’ll be inspired to at least start a conversation with their medical provider about the vaccine.    

Monday was ultimately a bittersweet day for Pla. Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States have died of COVID-19. Over the last nine months, Pla has intubated a number of patients suffering from the effects of the coronavirus disease. “I was always struck. We are not just talking about patients. We are talking about spouses and family members and best friends and coworkers,” he says, “who were sick, who were suffering, and in some cases dying without their family there, effectively alone but for us.” He always made it a point to hold their hand or rub their shoulder to remind them that someone was there.        

“I’m excited but also know that we lost a lot to get to this point,” says Pla. 

 —Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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