“If I anaphylax, who’s got me?” joked Dr. Ibbad Yousuf, getting a nervous laugh from his fellow Emergency Department colleagues as he rolled up his sleeve to become the very first person vaccinated at Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn.
“I’m glad you mentioned that,” replied Dr. Sandra Scott, the department chair. “The shots also come with vials of adrenaline and Benadryl, just in case.”
Translation: A small percentage of people injected with the new coronavirus vaccine from Pfizer are expected to have short-term side effects, like severe soreness and high fevers. An even smaller proportion could have the extreme allergic reaction known as anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal if not treated immediately (a handful of people have reported allergic reactions in the U.K. and U.S., the most serious being a health care worker in Alaska who remained in the hospital for observation after her shot).
None of the first 35 people at Brookdale had any problems, though, and the mood was low-key but festive Wednesday at a makeshift vaccination station in the hospital’s largely empty auditorium, with ER humor flowing and cellphone cameras clicking. Almost everyone was in street clothes, rather than white coats and scrubs, because none of them had any clinical duties for a day or two—the better to minimize workplace risk, in case anyone experienced strong side effects.
Other hospitals have rolled out their first vaccinations with more fanfare. At almost the same time that Brookdale’s ER staff members were rolling up their sleeves, over at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, the pandemic’s “epicenter of the epicenter” last spring, public officials gave speeches and the several dozen healthcare workers looking on cheered. But the joy was possibly even more palpable at Brookdale, a proud but often beleaguered institution that serves Brownsville, East New York, and other low-income Brooklyn neighborhoods.
“Sometimes we feel like we are the forgotten ones, and it's just amazing that we can get the vaccine at the same time other people are getting it,” said Gemma John, who was the first nurse to get vaccinated.
She compared the vaccine’s arrival to “like Christmas coming early.”
“We’re proud, and this way, we can protect ourselves and protect our community,” John said.
Brookdale is part of One Brooklyn Health System, a network of three cash-strapped hospitals formed in 2018 as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $1.4 billion “Vital Brooklyn” initiative. One of the other hospitals in the network, Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, in nearby East Flatbush, is in the process of being transformed from a traditional inpatient hospital into an ambulatory care center—over objections from many local officials and community members. Earlier this week, One Brooklyn’s administrators said it would retain inpatient services at Kingsbrook through the end of January, postponing the scheduled year-end shutdown.
The hospitals serve communities with some of the city’s highest rates of diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic illnesses. COVID-19 has been yet another devastating insult. East New York has suffered the most deaths, per capita, of any neighborhood in New York City.
Between them, the three hospitals received hundreds of doses of vaccine—the number was fluid, because they were expecting shipments throughout the week—and like most medical facilities, they started administering them primarily in emergency departments and intensive care units.
Scott, the Emergency Department head at Brookdale, said she didn’t know how long it would take to vaccinate her roughly 300 care providers and support staff members.
“My goal is to do it as quickly and safely as possible,” she said. “I've spent the last 24 hours just making sure that I could get it going today, so I really haven't done the math to figure out how long that will take.”
Scott envisioned vaccination hours taking place around the clock and on weekends, in order to reach every worker on every shift.
“We need to do that, so we can make it available to all of the different tours, and so we can speak to the staff and answer any concerns that they have, and also so we can be available, if anyone becomes symptomatic after receiving the vaccine,” she said.
Walking around the hospital and talking to people, Scott has heard many concerns about the vaccine—not so much from doctors and nurses, but from employees in maintenance, security, and other supporting units.
“I've actually heard people raise the issue about it not being safe for Black and brown people, particularly given the historical memory about how we were experimented on,” said Scott. “I'm a Black and brown person, so I get it. People are concerned about the science behind it.”
She said the key would be listening to people and trying to allay their concerns about the credibility of the science, the drug development, the approval process and, ultimately, the safety.
“There were some concerns about the political implications behind the vaccine, but once we got through the election I think people can focus more on the science and less on the political dynamics behind the vaccine,” Scott said. “There's a lot more comfort, particularly among the physicians and the nurses, and so we have to bring along our other colleagues in health care.”
Initially, nurse Gemma John counted herself in the wait-and-see camp about the vaccine. But she changed her mind after talking to colleagues, listening to the news about the FDA authorization, and reflecting on her exposure to COVID-19, both last spring and, increasingly, now, and the risk she has not only of contracting the coronavirus but of transmitting it.
“I was just a little anxious. It seemed like they developed this thing maybe a little too fast,” the 27-year Brookdale veteran said. “But I decided if it was passed by the FDA, I was going to take it, because I want to continue caring for my patients, and I need to protect myself and my family, because I have a daughter at home who has asthma.”
John said she knows a lot of her colleagues have doubts about the vaccine, but she hopes they’ll follow her lead.
“Maybe if they see that I’ve taken it, and I'm fine, I can be a good role model for them, and they can take it also,” she said.