‘It’s very calm’: Inside El Camino Health’s first COVID-19 vaccinations

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Eric He/Town Crier
Dr. Daniel Shin, an infectious disease specialist, receives the COVID-19 vaccine Saturday at El Camino Health's Mountain View location.

Dr. Daniel Shin, wearing a dark-blue polo shirt and khakis, strolled into a large room on the bottom floor of El Camino Health’s Mountain View campus Saturday morning – a room that, for the indefinite future, will be called the COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic. He sat down in a curtained-off makeshift area with a big number “3” taped on it, and rolled up his right sleeve.

The infectious disease specialist stared at the numerous onlookers holding their phone cameras out, hospital staff wanting to see the moment and an official photographer feet away waiting to document the nurse about to inject a needle into Shin’s arm.

“I’ve never had a crowd for my shots before,” Shin said, to laughter.

Shin had treated one of the earliest known cases of COVID-19 in the country and the first case of community spread in the Bay Area back in February – when few could have predicted the grim situation that would unfold. Ten months later, Shin was among the first to be vaccinated against the virus that has since killed more than 315,000 people in the United States and infected more than 17 million more.

“When I saw that first patient with my partners, my thought was, ‘This is going to be bad,’” Shin said. “Because the person had no risk factors. The only explanation was that it was spreading in the community. We just didn’t know it yet.”

Yet, in the unpredictable year that is 2020, multiple vaccines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use before the calendar flips, leading to hope that the end date to the pandemic that continues to ravage the Bay Area and the nation is in sight.

For now, only frontline health-care workers and those at long-term care facilities are able to be vaccinated with the limited doses available. But it’s a start.

Excitement in the air

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Eric He/Town Crier
A clinician inserts a COVID-19 vaccine dose into a vial.

At El Camino, the mood in the vaccine clinic could almost be described as excited, if not festive. Christmas music played over the sound of staff checking in those who had made appointments to be vaccinated. There were drawings of snowmen on a whiteboard next to a calendar reminding people to come back between Jan. 6 and Jan. 12 for the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The room broke into applause after inoculations.

At the front of the clinic was a standard refrigerator holding Pfizer’s thawed vaccine. On top of it was a bag of epinephrine injectors in case of allergic reactions – those who are vaccinated are asked to wait in chairs afterward in the room for several minutes, in case they experience discomfort. A clinician sat at a table next to the freezer, transferring doses from vials to syringes. Passersby could’ve easily mistaken the room for a regular flu shot clinic, not the place that may help spark the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“It’s very calm,” said Dr. Mark Adams, El Camino Health’s chief medical officer. “There’s no crowds or rushing. We’ve been lucky. People here, they’re very professional. One of my biggest jobs is just keeping people calm and saying, ‘OK, we can do this.’”

Once it knew a shipment was coming, the hospital had begun planning for arranging the order in which staff would get the vaccine. They’ve received 975 doses at the moment, though more is expected next week after Moderna’s vaccine received approval. Adams said that those who are exposed the most to COVID-19, such as doctors, nurses and infectious disease specialists, are prioritized. He’s aware that nearby Stanford Health Care had to apologize this week after a mishap led to frontline workers being put at the back of the line to be vaccinated. Doctors protested, claiming that some physicians who were working from home had been selected to be vaccinated first.

Adams said his health-care workers have been understanding of the plan put forward, and that what happened at Stanford is not going to occur at El Camino.

“For example, for physicians, it’s not only what they do, but how often they do it. You match that up, so it’s as fair as possible,” Adams said. “We’ve been communicating. You won’t find protests here.”

Surge plan

The hospital plans to vaccinate all of its staff by next spring. Like many health-care facilities, it is grappling with planning vaccinations amid the worst surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations yet. As of Saturday, Santa Clara County’s ICU bed capacity is at 94%, with 19 beds remaining. Adams said El Camino has more than 50 COVID-19 patients, a stark increase from the average of six to eight patients it had seen for most of the pandemic. The hospital is at 85% capacity for COVID-19 patients, but still has room and a surge plan.

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Eric He/Town Crier
A refrigerator that stores the thawed Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

“We discharge 10 COVID patients because they recover, and we get 10 more the same day,” Adams said. “It’s a constant revolving door right now.”

Shin, the infectious disease specialist, has seen those with the virus up close. He’s witnessed too much death, patients who he knows are not going to make it and cases where the sick are forced to communicate with loved ones over Zoom. He wants the public to know and trust that the vaccine is safe – after all, he’s already taken it.

“I would never recommend something to my patients, to my fellow physicians and employees in the hospital that I wouldn’t do myself,” Shin said. “That’s the bottom line.”

This article was updated on Dec. 20 at 5:45 p.m. to correct information about El Camino Healh's refrigerator. It is a standard refrigerator holding thawed vaccine from Pfizer, not an ultra-cold freezer. 

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