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'It's a new beginning': Cuyahoga Co. health officials administer first COVID vaccines

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Posted at 5:08 PM, Dec 23, 2020

PARMA, Ohio — There weren't any cheering crowds or large, rousing rounds of applause. There wasn't a victory formation or a celebration in the end zone. The first COVID-19 vaccinations at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health on Wednesday marked a momentous first step in finally turning the fight against the ongoing pandemic into an offensive attack instead of a defensive one, public health officials said.

After nine months of waiting, the first few vials of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine were administered to the county's front-line vaccinators on Wednesday morning. Nurse JoAnn Carrothers was among the first to receive the vaccine.

"I'm relieved. I'm ready. I've been waiting 9 months for this," Carrothers said as Dr. Heidi Gullett, the medical director at CCBH, prepared to administer the coronavirus vaccine.

The CCBH received its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is 4,000 doses, on Wednesday afternoon. County health officials wasted no time beginning to administer them. Health Commissioner Terry Allan said the first people to receive the vaccine from the board of health will be those who will later administer the vaccine to others.

"In so many ways for us, it's a new beginning," Allan said. "Since early March, we have worked 7 days a week, incredible hours, in this response to defend and really fight back against this virus. This is our opportunity to go on the offense. I'd say it's pretty cool to have a job where you are able to say that you were part of the solution and turn the corner toward a better time for everyone. We're excited to be a part of it."

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Romona Brazile, CCBH's co-director of prevention and wellness, described the first inoculations as a pivotal moment in history not just for those in public health or healthcare but for the entire world.

"It's like moving into the part where we can more actively fight back against COVID," Brazile said. "It's kind of a collective moment too. A lot of people, too, understand that this is our way of getting back to normal. It's going to take a while but it's part of the way."

While Brazile, Allan and others are undoubtedly excited and hopeful now that the vaccine is ready for distribution, the feelings are both measured and tempered. The marathon is far from over and for those that lost jobs, homes, life savings — or even more tragic — for those that lost loved ones, the marathon, perhaps, may be perpetual.

"I've talked to many people who have lost their wives or their husbands or their mothers or their fathers. I remember in particular, there was a gentleman who I called the weekend after Thanksgiving. His wife died the day before Thanksgiving and he had COVID and he was at home. He was isolating and his family was leaving food at the front door," Allan recalled. "He was scared. He was upset and he was grieving... He said he wanted to talk and he wanted to tell me what he knew so that it could help somebody else. His resiliency was inspiring but his pain was palpable. Grief has been immense for everyone and it isn't just the virus."

Allan said for the remainder of this week, the rest of the front-line medical personnel that will be administering the vaccine will themselves be vaccinated. Then, beginning next week, Allan said, the CCBH and its partner agencies will begin vaccinating EMS workers across the county at three different events officially known as "points of distribution." Of the 2,000 EMS workers across the county, Allan expects 1,500 to be vaccinated. The points of distribution will be held at fire stations in Westlake, Shaker Heights and Independence.

Once EMS workers have been vaccinated, Allan said public health officials will then turn their attention to those working with vulnerable populations, including home healthcare workers, substance abuse healthcare providers and dentists. Employees in these fields as well as the populations they serve are considered to be the first phase of the vaccine roll-out. Although a specific timeline depends on the available supply of the vaccine, Allan expects those that aren't in or working with a vulnerable population to possibly be vaccinated by the late spring or early summer. Allan said he expects to be vaccinated at that time.

While a tremendous amount of work remains, Allan said Wednesday's first step in fighting back against the pandemic is beyond noteworthy.

"I think the vaccine holds our promise that, over time, it will get us to a place where, for the first time I've felt since this thing started, that I can see that gleam and know that there are better days ahead. I can hold onto them because I can see them," Allan said. "I've got 30 years of experience here. I've said I've never been prouder to be in public health now because when you get knocked down, you have to get back up. Everybody gets knocked down. You've got to keep moving."