Published January 14, 2021
Since early December, UB faculty and medical residents with frontline patient care responsibilities have begun receiving their COVID-19 vaccines. By now, some of them have had their second doses. Vaccinations have been taking place at Erie County Department of Health sites and at local hospitals, including Buffalo General Medical Center, the VA Western New York Healthcare System, Millard Fillmore Suburban and Erie County Medical Center.
Earlier this month, UB students with patient care responsibilities, including Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences students who help provide patient care in hospitals, also began getting their shots. About 1,000 UB students who have contact with patients as part of the clinical requirements of their degree programs — including pharmacy, dental, nursing, public health, medical, social work and audiology students — have been designated as essential health care workers by the state and will be vaccinated over the next several weeks.
As the vaccine becomes more available in New York State, UB will help lead efforts to roll out vaccination sites throughout the region as part of the Western New York Vaccination Hub working group headed by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. At the local level, the hub is co-led by Catholic Health President and CEO Mark Sullivan, ECMC President and CEO Tom Quatroche, and Michael E. Cain, UB vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School.
“UB is proud to serve on the governor’s regional vaccination leadership group that will help assure that all Western New Yorkers are safely, efficiently and equitably vaccinated,” Cain says. “I speak for the entire UB community in saying it is our heartfelt hope that every vaccine that every Western New Yorker receives brings our region closer to a happy, healthy future in which we are finally free of COVID-19.”
On Monday, the state designated UB’s South Campus as a vaccination site for the Western New York community. Registration will be required. Additional information about the South Campus vaccination site, including a specific building location and hours of operation, will be provided at a later date.
“The UB community has made many significant contributions in the fight against COVID-19 through its research, teaching and volunteer efforts. UB is proud to continue making a positive impact by serving as a vaccination site,” President Satish K. Tripathi says. “This will help bring the vaccines closer to the community, speeding up a return to normalcy for Western New Yorkers.”
Jacobs School physicians note the significance of being able to be vaccinated just a year after the appearance of the SARS-CoV2 virus could not be overstated.
“Who would have thought that we would have a vaccine so fast, when it was literally a year ago people were just starting to ask, so what’s going on with this virus in China?” says Joshua Lynch, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine in the Jacobs School and a physician with UBMD Emergency Medicine.
“I am so impressed,” agrees Alan J. Lesse, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, who sees inpatients at the VA, where he received his first vaccination dose. “Technologically, it’s a tour de force.”
Patrick Glasgow, clinical assistant professor of family medicine, was vaccinated at ECMC, where he sees patients at its primary care clinic. “This is a chance to really turn the page and get back to some semblance of normal,” he says.
Lynch, who is director of emergency medicine at DeGraff Memorial Hospital, wasn’t around when the polio and measles vaccines were introduced in the 1950s and ‘60s, but he’s hoping history repeats itself.
“Those diseases are mostly gone now,” says Lynch, who received his COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month. “We can only hope the same thing happens with COVID-19.”
In addition to the stress of caring for patients diagnosed with COVID-19, providers also describe the stress that came with the uncertainty of not knowing which patients may have been infected with the virus.
After getting her vaccine, Roseanne Berger, professor of family medicine in the Jacobs School and a physician with UBMD Family Medicine, says she “felt relief that I could soon see patients with less anxiety.”
Being vaccinated gave many health care workers a sense of solidarity with each other. “This pandemic really wore everyone down,” says Marta Plonka, a UB emergency medicine resident who received her shot on Dec. 22. She says that talking with colleagues who were also getting the shot felt good.
“Health care workers have really come together for this vaccine,” Plonka says. “We’re all onboard with it.”
Providers emphasize that no specialty has been untouched by the pandemic. For instance, while far fewer children than adults have become severely ill from COVID-19, some who didn’t even know they had it have later presented with serious complications, such as kidney or liver damage. And only then is it discovered that they had been infected.
Those uncertainties are still very much the story with COVID-19, providers note —another reason why the vaccine is so important.
“You can get the virus anywhere,” says Justin Blaty, a UB medical resident in pediatrics. “So just like with any vaccine, you’re not just protecting yourself from the virus, but also your loved ones. As a pediatrician, I always talk to parents about vaccines and I tell them it’s not just about you. We see a lot of kids who are cancer patients, for example, or immunocompromised. Maybe COVID won’t affect you as badly, but if you are asymptomatic and you give it to them, that could be a life-threatening illness for them.”
That knowledge, which for health care workers is always top of mind, has made this vaccination experience a kind of milestone in their careers.
“I was so excited to be part of this medical history,” says Heather M. Territo, clinical associate professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School and a physician with UBMD Pediatrics. She received her vaccine earlier this month. “The fact that the whole medical community is just as excited as I am shows that it’s safe. We have been going through this pandemic for months. It is so exciting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Providers know that some community members are hesitant about the vaccine, but they strongly believe that by getting vaccinated first, they can set a good example, especially for populations, such as Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, which are especially ravaged by the disease.
“I think lots of eyes have been opened,” Lesse says. “While there’s still racism in medicine, there are people who realize that and are working to correct it. I think this vaccine is an opportunity to help correct it. If we convince people that it works, especially in those populations that it was tested in, and it’s safe, it will help protect them because they’re at higher risk. Right now the vaccine is one of our most valuable commodities.
The most common physical reactions to the vaccine that UB physicians report are mild, ranging from a sore arm to an achy or tired feeling that lasts about a day.
Those are the most common reactions expected to be seen once the public begins to be vaccinated in a few months. Nationwide, a handful of people have had severe allergic reactions to this vaccine and all have been treated and recovered. This type of reaction is rare, occurring in one in every 100,000 people or less who receive the vaccine.
Joseph Izzo likes the odds. Izzo, professor and chief of clinical pharmacology in the Department of Medicine and chief of medicine at ECMC who was vaccinated there during Christmas week, says: “If you get a chance to play odds that are 99% in your favor you should play that every time.”
Once the vaccine is available for the general public, Izzo encourages people to contact their providers so that they can be vaccinated as soon as possible.
“The vaccine will limit the rate of spread of the virus and reduce peoples’ exposure,” he says. “Everyone who can get it should get it.”
UB providers are confident the buzz created by health care workers getting their vaccines is going to help, noting that doctors’ feeds on social media are filled with photos of happy physicians getting their shots.
“I think the more people hear about the vaccine, the more people will get it,” Territo says. “They can say, ‘OK, Heather got the vaccine and she’s fine. It’s safe and it works.’
“Get out there and get it.”