ALBANY — The first Capital Region resident was vaccinated against COVID-19 on Monday, a major milestone in a pandemic that has killed at least 443 people in the region and altered everyday life for nearly everyone else.
In the space of several hours, Albany Medical Center took delivery of its allotment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, thawed it from a hundred degrees below zero to room temperature, and began administering it to its employees at greatest risk due either to the nature of their jobs or their own personal health factors.
Cynthia Tanksley bared her right shoulder and got the first injection. Her job is to register patients arriving at the Emergency Department, and this potentially places her at elevated risk of infection.
The multistep process by which she and four other workers were chosen to receive the first shots illustrates the challenges in deciding who gets priority for a vaccine for which demand far exceeds supply.
Albany Med, the largest hospital in northeastern New York, has about 10,000 employees, 6,000 of them in critical care roles that are considered top priority for vaccination.
The hospital’s first-round allocation was just 975 doses. And the 975 people who get those doses will need a second round of shots in three weeks, further taxing the limited supply.
But more of the vaccine is coming, said Albany Med CEO Dr. Dennis McKenna — first for medical personnel and nursing home residents, then for other high-vulnerability/high-priority recipients, and ultimately for the general public.
“This is a historic moment for the region as well as for Albany Med,” he said. “There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. But when we look back in history at this date with the global pandemic, we will say that this was the beginning of the end in the Capital Region.”
The medical center prepared for this campaign over the last three months, with a team of medical, pharmaceutical and ethical specialists setting up the rigid protocol for storing and administering the highly perishable vaccine and deciding on a way to choose the recipients.
Along with Tanksley, the other four who got the vaccine at Monday afternoon’s news conference were an emergency/critical care doctor, an environmental services worker, a registered nurse and a respiratory therapist.
The diversity was by design: Some will experience the side effects that show the vaccine is working, such as fever, fatigue and headache, so to administer the vaccine one department at a time would be to create a risk of sidelining much of that department.
The hospital is not mandating that its employees receive the vaccine, but is encouraging it, and it said respondents to a survey indicated strong support.
Public sentiment is a critical part of the vaccination campaign. Both the Pfizer vaccine rolled out Monday and the Moderna vaccine nearing approval are 95 percent effective, but unless a large percentage of the population receives them, the pandemic could drag on, diminished but not defeated.
And surveys show a significant portion of the American population does not trust the vaccine or the process that led to its rollout, and may be hesitant to receive it.
McKenna spoke directly to these people at Monday’s news conference:
“You can all play an incredibly important role by taking the vaccine when it becomes available,” he said. “Help us to help you by receiving it.”
Tanksley said she had no hesitation. “I feel good about it,” she said.
At work, there are hygienic barriers in place to keep her from contracting COVID-19. At home, she and her family haven’t been touched by COVID-19 through community spread. Nonetheless, she was happy to be first in line.
“I’m one of the seasoned employees, one of the older ones,” said Tanksely, a lifelong Albany resident who started at Albany Med in 1979 at age 18 and has worked there ever since. “I’ve escaped it thus far and I’m really glad I was chosen to get the vaccine.”
First in line for the vaccine along with hospitals and emergency responders are nursing home residents and employees, who have been sickened and killed by the tens of thousands during the pandemic.
Tentative arrival date for vaccines at these facilities varies widely, however. In the Capital Region, for example, Shaker Place in Albany County expects its first shipment on Dec. 21, Glendale Home in Schenectady County on Dec. 26, and Pathways Nursing and Rehab in Niskayuna on Jan. 6. Others, such as the Centers Health Care nursing homes in Delmar, Gloversville, Schenectady and Troy, hadn’t received a schedule as of Monday.
The eight-county Capital Region is home to 1.08 million people, 21,466 of whom have been confirmed infected with COVID-19 since the virus was first detected in New York state March 1. The region’s official death toll, which state officials have acknowledged probably understates the actual number, stood at 443 Monday.
Regionwide, 269 people were hospitalized and 495 new positive tests were reported Monday. The region’s seven-day positive test average stood at 5.9 percent, highest since mid-June.
The situation is worse in most of the state’s nine other regions, particularly in the Finger Lakes, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a news conference Monday. “Capital Region is doing well, comparatively,” he said.
Which is not to say great:
- Schenectady’s Ellis Hospital on Monday set another new high for patient census — 81 COVID-positive inpatients, more than double the single-day peak of 39 in April, back when the first wave of the pandemic was at its worst. Ellis has an entire wing set aside for COVID patients and had prepared for a second wave based on its experiences in the first wave.
- Schoharie County gained the dubious distinction of highest positive test rate in the state on a seven-day average: 10.7 percent. It cumulatively has among the fewest infections and deaths of any New York county since March but has seen a sharp uptick in recent days. Typically, fewer than 200 residents of the rural county of 31,000 people are tested per day, sometimes fewer than 100.
- The state announced a new yellow zone, this one the closest yet to the Capital Region, in the Utica-Rome area. These micro clusters are areas of higher COVID activity that get special attention and are subject to new restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of disease.