HELENA — Millions of frontline workers are receiving their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine this month. Vice President Pence received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine Friday morning on live television, President Trump has supported vaccination efforts, and former presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton have said they'd be willing to get vaccinated on camera.
Even with that support, the recommendation of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and some of the most peer-reviewed data ever regarding the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine, the frontline workers taking the vaccine are stepping into a bit of the unknown. A act in the service of their patients and community.
Dr. Bronson White is the associate chief of staff for education at the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison. He is also a colonel with the MT Army National Guard where he serves as the State Surgeon. White says he will be proudly raising his sleeve next week when the first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive at Fort Harrison.
“I’m excited to get the vaccine,” said White. “This is good, sound science that went into the development of it. One of the most important things about my calling, my duty is I have to take care and protect the people around me. Whether I’m wearing a military uniform or medical scrubs, it’s really important I do everything in power to protect those around me.”
White says he’s been lucky to have had the opportunity to serve his country all over the world caring for patients. Because of that, White is no stranger to vaccination. Thanks to his military service he has been poked with a needle scores of times in order to be protected against a wide variety of diseases most Americans will never encounter.
Part of White’s service included a year in Africa where he helped with the responding to outbreaks of hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola. “There were a number of smoldering outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever. Some were Ebola and others were similar illnesses,” said White.
White said there were certainly scary moments when they’d respond to a community.
“I was a one-man show and I wasn’t part of a medical hospital. I was there with very small units of Army soldiers that were traveling and administering other vaccinations,” said White. “There just wasn’t as much information available. We’d try to evaluate a community before going in, make sure it was safe for us to be there, but sometimes we wouldn't discover an outbreak until we were already there.”
When it comes to COVID-19, just about everywhere in the country is an outbreak area in December. The disease is prevalent and White and the other providers at the VA Medical Center are seeing the worst of it, every single day.
“Frankly it’s been the longest nine months of most of our lives,” White said. “No one was prepared for this coming in mentally or anything else. This has been a new experience.”
White believes the pandemic will be remembered by those living today in the same way as other world-defining events, such as World War II. “I think if we roll that clock forward, a whole bunch of us will be telling stories about that time that the COVID pandemic came through and how we had to respond to it,” said White.
White says he understands why some people may be nervous or afraid of getting the vaccine, as it’s been a scary and difficult year. He also recognizes not everyone can be consistently up to date on the latest medical trends and information.
White strongly recommends that anyone concerned about the vaccine or has questions not turn to the internet or even media for definitive answers, but rather contact their own personal care provider. After all, those providers are trusted with all other aspects of medical care and advice for their patients. It’s their job to adequately research any care they recommend.
“Not everyone can keep up with every emerging medical technology. One of our responsibilities is to help our patients interpret that information. Look at the real science and look at what’s safe, effective and tailor our recommendations to the different groups,” said White.
White recognizes there are side effects for both available COVID vaccines, and there have been cases of allergic reactions by individuals receiving the Pfizer vaccine. However, of the tens of thousands of vaccination doses administered this week, there have only been a handful of reported allergic reactions. Again, White says a patient consultation with their care provider will let them know if they’re at risk.
As for the more common side effects, like muscle ache and nausea, White says that’s part of the process of the body learning how to fight of COVID, and common for many types of vaccines.
“What we’re seeing is very predictable, very limited adverse reactions,” said White. “It’s really important to understand that the reaction that the normal healthy response that a person has to a vaccination is not catching the disease, it’s a much limited form of some of the same symptoms. Frankly, I’d be concerned if you didn’t show any response. Reaction tells us you have a normal healthy immune system.”
The COVID vaccines were developed in record time, but they also had the backing and support of the world medical and pharmaceutical community behind it every step of the way. Less than a year of development for a vaccine isn't unheard of either, with the yearly influenza vaccine needing to be developed each year to combat the new strains of the virus.
White says the arrival of a vaccine has brought a lot of hope to the medical community at the VA, but it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. Hopefully though, it may be the beginning of the end.
“We can’t put our guard completely down, but having a safe and effective vaccine that we can get distributed widely to the community truly is a major in our ability to contain this,” said White.”Remember, what we’re shooting for here is to protect the vulnerable in our population. If we can get 70 percent of our communities vaccinated to this illness, that will protect the sick, the elderly, the folks that we don’t want to have exposed to it.”
White added the medical community wants the pandemic to end as much as anyone, and are looking forward to celebrating that day with the community. Right now they’re the first in-line to get their vaccinations. Once the community is protected, they’ll be some of the first in line for a well earned drink too.