Palatine Bridge resident and nurse practitioner Rita O’Neill became part of a national and local historical moment recently when she became one of the area’s first individuals to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
O’Neill, employed at St. Mary’s Healthcare/Canajoharie Health Center and also a major in the United States military, received the first immunization round — which will be followed up with a second shot no more than 21 days after the first — on Dec. 18.
A few weeks ago, O’Neill was asked, in her military capacity, if she’d be interested in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. She didn’t hesitate in accepting the offer, at that time not knowing how long it’d be before a vaccine was available to her as a frontline healthcare worker.
She arrived about an hour ahead of her 9 a.m. vaccination appointment. “You have to be very strict about the time you arrive.” The vaccine is originally in the form of powder or frozen liquid, kept at negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it must be reconstituted — mixed with saline or sterile water to facilitate its liquid form.
Once the shot is reconstituted, it has to be administered within 20 minutes.
At first, O’Neill said, “I was a little bit apprehensive” after hearing various bits of information about the antidote. After researching the vaccine, O’Neill said she learned that out of a batch of 400 that had recently been administered, only two people had symptoms potentially related to the process, neither of those possible reactions were severe nor incredibly concerning.
“I believe when they put out their safety data, they were truthful,” O’Neill said of the immunization’s developers, noting she had thoroughly vetted the vaccine prior to receiving it. “The side effects didn’t seem concerning. Nothing was life threatening.”
In fact, said O’Neill, most of the listed potential side effects sounded less concerning than those rattled off during modern commercials for various medications. The most notable potential side effects were nausea, pain and flu-like symptoms.
The immunization process, she said, went off smoothly, its dispensing being “much more organized” than that procedure might’ve been prior to COVID-19. “It was a well-oiled machine.” The recipients were administered vaccines in groups of five, with 80 shots per hour being provided to 250 people at Camp Smith. The vaccination is given in two parts. She’ll still have to receive the second shot.
Prior to receiving the shot, recipients were questioned about things that could potentially impede the immunization. Those receiving the vaccine were observed for 15 minutes post-shot to make sure there were no side-effects. Individuals were then discharged with a card listing the vaccine lot number and administration date.
The shot didn’t hurt, O’Neill said, but “the next day I had a little discomfort. I was expecting it to be more painful than it was.” She simply felt like she’d received a punch in the arm, which subsided with the application of Bio-Freeze.
Other than that, O’Neill suffered no side effects.
Days after O’Neill was immunized, several of her colleagues from St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam also received vaccinations. “We’re all taking it very seriously and I’m glad that everybody is on board” with being vaccinated, she said.
Her willingness to take the vaccine, along with her health care colleagues on the frontlines, signals confidence to others, she said. “That’s the biggest message to our patients — we follow science.”
Early in the pandemic, medical staff at St. Mary’s Healthcare couldn’t see patients in person unless they had special medical clearance, with many visits taking place virtually. On a regular day prior to COVID-19, O’Neill saw about 26 patients. That number was reduced to 10 or so during the pandemic, with personal protective equipment always worn and frequent sanitization a constant priority.
Though O’Neill said that her average in-person patient total is back up to 22 per day, COVID-19 cases have also risen, which could soon force healthcare providers to once again go largely virtual.
She said that while she would advise local people not to be wary of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, she also encourages them to educate themselves regarding the immunization. “I prefer people to do their research,” she said, pointing to the studies and results shared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Read the studies and make a decision based on science,” she said. COVID-19 immunizations, O’Neill said, have unfortunately been politicized.
“This is about getting America back on track,” O’Neill said of the immunization rollout.
She noted that even after her vaccine administration is complete — as she’s scheduled to receive a second, culminating shot soon — it’s important to stay the course in remaining distanced from one another while continuing to wear masks in public and populated spaces.
“Until we’re all doing well — even with immunization,” O’Neill said, “we all have to keep doing what we’re doing, not only out of an abundance of caution, but also out of respect for one another.”