Lindsey Medeiros

Lindsey Medeiros, a Banner intensive care unit nurse, was one of the first to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Peoria first responders will be next.

COVID-19 vaccines-called “one tiny step to life after COVID” by a health care official-have arrived in the West Valley.

But the general public still has to wait, as the first batch of vaccines is reserved for health care workers, first responders and residents of nursing homes.

Paramedics from the Peoria Fire-Medical Department may be included in the “Phase 1A” distribution of the vaccine that begins this week. 

“The vaccines that did come into the state was not as much as expected and was limited to ER and ICU staffing,” said Mario Bravo, a Peoria Fire-Medical spokesman. 

“There is a website that fire personal can sign up to be pre-screened for the vaccination. The vaccination is optional for our members,” Bravo added.

Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center is the point of distribution—or POD—where most Peoria and Glendale first responders will receive the vaccine.

Ashley Losch of the Glendale Fire Department said there was a slight glitch in the registration process that was soon resolved: “Once it was fixed, I was able to make an appointment quickly,” she said.

Maricopa County received the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine and started distributing them last week at two dispensing sites hosted by Banner Health and HonorHealth before expanding with three more locations this week.

Marcy Flanagan, executive director of Maricopa County Public Health, said the launch went smoothly, with “over 1,000 doses on the first day.”

“This is a little hope,” she said. “We are one tiny step closer to life after COVID.”

She said there were about a dozen mild reactions. “Most were anxiety related … nothing that concerned us,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan said about 40,000 signed up for the first round of the vaccine.

The FDA’s emergency approval for Moderna to provide another COVID-19 vaccine should help the county’s supply.

And, while other vaccine providers are awaiting approval, Flanagan stressed that most will have to wait until “the spring to early summer” for vaccines. At that point, “It’ll be similar to the availability of a flu shot. You should be able to go to a pharmacy, your primary care physician,” Flanagan said.

Abrazo West Campus in Goodyear received its first shipment of Pfizer vaccine last week and, after a “dry run” rehearsal last week, started providing vaccinations Monday, Dec. 21.

The vaccine arrives just as COVID-19 cases are peaking at places like Abrazo West.

“We have approached the high level mark we were at in the summer,” said Abrazo West CEO Christina Oh. 

Her staff was prepared for the increasing number of COVID-19 patients, she said.

“We’ve been through it once before, we definitely feel more at ease-but the impact of the pandemic is powerful,” Oh said. “We take our hats off to our staff, every day.”

“We have already implemented capacity plans that we developed even before the summer surge,” she added. “We’re implementing them again, very consistent with what other hospitals are doing.”

According to Maricopa County Department of Public Health, all three key benchmarks are showing “substantial” community spread of COVID-19.

For the most recent week of full data, Maricopa County had 579 cases per 100,000 people-more than five times greater than the 100 cases per 100,000 that is considered substantial spread.  

The rate of spread nearly doubled the week after Thanksgiving.

Even as county and state officials urge people to exercise extreme caution about holiday gatherings, Abrazo West and other POD’s are providing the first vaccinations to protect against COVID-19.

Maricopa County Public Health expects as many as 1 million people will be eligible for vaccinations in Phases 1B and 1C, with the Moderna-approved by the FDA for emergency use Dec. 18-vaccine joining Pfizer.

The news of the vaccine came at a great time, with Abrazo West staff struggling to keep up the pace of increasing COVID-19 patients.

“I think everyone realized there’s hope on the horizon,” Oh said.

“This is the second surge, so we feel more prepared-but it’s hard to see someone struggling with COVID and the teams are tired.

“We’re excited that hopefully this vaccine effort will take hold and next year we’re looking at a different holiday.”

At another POD site last week, Lindsey Medeiros, an intensive care unit nurse at Banner – University Medical Center, was one of the first to get the vaccine. 

“I work in the ICU. I see the sickest of the sick. I can’t even describe how hard it’s been for our patients, our doctors, our nurses,” she said.

“And this is finally like the sun coming up.”

While it is great to see health care workers getting protection, Oh stressed vaccines will not make a positive impact in the community for months. 

“People need to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently,” Oh said.

“The message is even more important as we head into the Christmas week.”

Indeed, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ released a video Dec. 18 to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine and share the latest information on the virus in Arizona.

She noted Arizona contact tracers are reflecting similar situations to a recent New York study, which found three out of four who COVID-19 cases were traced to small household and social events.

“We have seen much the same thing at ADHS,” Christ said. “Our 600 contact tracers point out again and again where people socialize without taking the precautions required in public events.”

Christ said when she is involved directly in testing, “when a test comes back positive, in almost every case I’ve heard the person didn’t take precautions in a social setting.”

Christ was concerned about the upcoming holidays, after the most recent one.

“Since Thanksgiving, when many gathered with loved ones and friends, we’ve seen the COVID-19 metrics worsen,” she said.

“Informal settings cause me the most worry at this time. A student may be protected by mitigation steps at school but contract COVID-19 during a sporting event or private get together where precautions aren’t as easily enforced. Someone who is required to wear masks while shopping for groceries may then invite people over for a dinner where people don’t wear masks or socially distance.

“These create situations where this very contagious virus can spread.”

She urged everyone to “assess the risk of hosting or attending a holiday gathering. 

“If weather permits consider hosting your gathering outdoors. Indoor gatherings with poor ventilation increase the chance of spread.”

And, she said, try to keep them short: “Gatherings that last longer post a higher risk.”

She cautioned people not to let their guards down after the good news on vaccinations beginning.

Echoing Oh’s caution, Christ noted, “it will be a number of months before vaccines are available to all, so we must continue to do all that we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19."