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Injecting hope

COVID-19 vaccines arrive in Hidalgo County

Lindsie Schuster is one of many frontline workers at DHR Health who are known as “COVID warriors” for being at the frontlines of treating the sickest of the sick.

Schuster, a native from the Rio Grande Valley, was working in Austin up until last summer when she heard of the Valley being crippled with a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Lindsie Schuster (right) becomes the first DHR Health staff member to receive a COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Progress Times photo by Jose De Leon III,

“I had to come back here and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” Schuster, a head nurse at DHR Health’s Serious Infectious Disease Unit – the hospital’s COVID-19 unit, said. “Every day I am knee deep in COVID patients and have physical contact everyday with ICU patients, those on ventilators, our job since the summer has been to take care of the sickest of the sick people.”

And now, frontline workers like Schuster will have a new tool to combat the COVID-19 virus, which has infected nearly 50,000 people in the county and killed more than 2,100.

On Tuesday, the hospital received 5,850 doses of the recently approved Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. The following day, Schuster became the first DHR Health staff member to be vaccinated against the disease.

The vaccination occurred at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance where on Wednesday, a group of 20 frontline workers were vaccinated as a test run for the vaccination process.  DHR Health plans to vaccinate about 1,400 each day starting Thursday morning until DHR Health runs out of the first dosage of the vaccine.

After receiving the vaccination, Schuster raised her hands in triumph as the crowd of staff members and other frontline workers in line to be vaccinated erupted in applause, a stark contrast to the beginning of the ceremony which started with the crowd holding a moment of silence for the more than 300,000 people in the country who have lost their lives to the disease.

“We all still need to stay safe and protect ourselves but I’m feeling so much joy right now, it’s an exciting day for all of us,” Schuster said. “I couldn’t be happier standing here representing everyone in the team and working together to get through this. We pray and have faith and hope that this is the beginning of the end of this.”

Schuster was the first from DHR Health but not the first in the entire Valley to be inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine. That honor belongs to  Dr. Michelle Lopez, UTRGV School of Medicine associate program director and assistant professor of Internal Medicine. She was vaccinated on Tuesday, the day the university received  1,950 vaccines to be administered that afternoon to the university’s frontline workers. 

“I wasn’t nervous, and I will tell you why. Because for the past few months, we have seen how patients can be affected by COVID-19 – and the risks associated with the vaccine are nowhere near as terrible as the things that I have seen in my patients who actually get the COVID-19 infection,” Lopez said in a statement. “I was actually very excited to get the vaccine today and I was very grateful. I think I will feel safer having to go to work and see my patients, and not be afraid now that I am going to get the infection and possibly die and not go home to my family.”

Frontline personnel have been identified as high priority to receive the vaccine because of their heightened exposure to the virus and their need to stay healthy to support others as cases surge in the Valley and across the country.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at a temperature of -80°C, or -112°F, according to DHR Health Pharmacist Technician Supervisor Gabriel Vasquez.

“We were lucky to already have the capabilities to store the vaccine, otherwise hospitals would have to depend on receiving dry ice from the state to store the vaccine,” Vasquez said, adding that the vaccine lasts only for a month in dry ice and must be used within five days of being thawed.

Starr County said in a news conference last week that due to Starr County Memorial Hospital not having the capabilities to store the vaccine, they are waiting to receive the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by biotechnology company Moderna. The Moderna vaccine can be stored in a regular fridge and as of press time, was still waiting to be approved by the FDA.

Marcy Martinez, a spokeswoman for DHR Health, said the arrival of the vaccine has changed the mood at the hospital.

“We have 6,000 employees so when the vials arrived yesterday, you could hear people excitedly saying ‘it’s here,’” Martinez said. “They have to see a lot of the sadness and despair that comes with COVID so they want to see that there is a way to protect themselves and stop the spread in the community.”

The vaccine will be distributed on a voluntary basis to staff in many departments ranging from ER unit, surgeons, cleanup and other SIDU staff members according to DHR Health CEO Dr. Manish Singh.

Singh said the hospital’s goal is to vaccinate every health care worker in the hospital before the vaccine is made available for the public sometime next year.

“We are witnessing a historic moment in the Valley for our patients. We know a lot about this disease compared to the start of the pandemic when no one knew anything about it but Lindsie and other COVID warriors did their job anyway,” Singh said. “We hope the disease is ending and after we vaccinate the people who need it the most we will expand that to other physicians and the people in the community. We will be at the forefront of battling this disease.”

Schuster said she is due to receive a second dose of the vaccine in 21 days.

“But I’ll be taking the same precautions I’ve been doing since before I got the vaccine, washing my hands, social distancing and wearing my mask,” Schuster said. “Just because we’re hoping it’s ending doesn’t mean we can’t continue to be diligent and responsible while we’re all getting the vaccine.”

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