GW Hospital employees are first to receive COVID-19 vaccine in D.C.

Media Credit: Grace Hromin | Assistant Photo Editor

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams encouraged all patients to take the vaccine, and he urged local officials to ensure doses are distributed in an equitable manner.

A group of five health care workers at the GW Hospital became the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in D.C. Monday.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams joined Mayor Muriel Bowser and medical staff at GW Hospital to present the first novel coronavirus vaccinations in the District. Barbara Neiswander, a nursing supervisor at the hospital, was the first to receive a vaccine, and she was followed by Raymond Pla, an anesthesiology specialist and assistant professor of anesthesiology, who said he hopes he can encourage his Black patients to trust in the vaccine.

“This is not just the best way forward,” he said. “This is the best, only way forward.”

The vaccinations at GW Hospital mark the first day of mass distribution across the country Monday following the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine Friday.

Pla said the pandemic has exposed the health care disparities that have disadvantaged Black communities during the pandemic, home to a lack of medical resources and “a deep mistrust that has its root in historical wrongs.” He said he hopes patients will see his vaccination and reconsider receiving a vaccine or at least ask a doctor for advice.

“I think it’s important for Black and Brown communities and members of said communities to see someone who looks and walks and understands the stories and understands what’s going on,” Pla said.

Adams, the surgeon general, encouraged all patients to take the vaccine, and he urged local officials to ensure doses are distributed in an equitable manner. He said officials need to reassure minorities that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, since many struggle to come to terms with the Tuskegee Study, during which medical workers lied to Black sharecroppers about their syphilis treatment for 40 years.

“It would be a great tragedy if disparities actually worsened because the people who would most benefit from this vaccine won’t take it,” Adams said. “I’ve often said vaccines are one of our greatest social injustices in this country.”

Adams thanked the people of color who have been involved in research and clinical trials and said the medical industry needs to uplift “trusted voices” in the field who can encourage vaccination and restore trust, like the National Black Nurses Association and the National Hispanic Medical Association. He said Americans should remain cautious through social distancing but also feel confident for the pandemic’s pending end.

“Vaccinations have been a tried and true public health measure for hundreds of years, but the development of the COVID vaccine is nothing short of revolutionary, and I hope everyone appreciates the importance, the significance, the history of this moment,” he said.

Assistant professor Sheetal Sheth, labor and delivery nurse Shylee Stewart and emergency medicine physician Sean Chester were the other three health care workers to receive the vaccine at the event.

Azar, the health and human services secretary, credited the vaccine rollout to President Donald Trump’s “sponsorship and support” of Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s partnership with pharmaceutical companies to create, test and distribute a vaccine. He encouraged everyone to trust vaccination and continue staying safe as doses start rolling out into 2021.

“This is not the end of our battle against COVID, but today marks a critical milestone towards the ultimate defeat of COVID-19,” he said.

Bruno Patinaux, GW Hospital’s chief medical officer, said hospital officials selected the five employees to be the first to receive a vaccine through an algorithm that prioritized individuals who face the highest risk of COVID-19 exposure, those who are of an older age and those who suffer from “comorbidities for severe COVID-19 disease.”

Patinaux said hospital officials identified workers in the emergency and labor and delivery departments as “first-priority” individuals who treat patients before their COVID-19 status is known. From there, vaccines will first be provided to workers who are at least 65 years old or live with comorbidities.

“We look forward to making this vaccine available to all of our essential caregivers that are interested in receiving the vaccine in the coming months,” he said.

GW Hospital is one of the District’s six sites that will store and distribute the COVID-19 vaccines. The hospital received its first shipment of more than 900 doses Monday morning, as other health care workers and first responders prepare for vaccination as the first cohort of recipients.

Mayor Muriel Bowser thanked locals and business owners across D.C. for helping guide the city to its first day of COVID-19 vaccination. She said the first “first responders” to receive a vaccine in D.C. are members of D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services and will receive their first doses Thursday.

“I am grateful for what I know has been a herculean scientific effort, logistics effort, and now it’s on all of us to make sure we’re communicating to our neighbors, our family and friends and especially right now the health care workers in our lives that we have a safe and effective vaccine and that we need to get to using it,” she said.

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