In a matter of minutes, Cliff Roperez became the face of the next era in Santa Clara County’s fight against COVID-19.
Roperez, 47, was the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, a moment that came after nine painful months and hundreds of deaths countywide.
“I was identified by our leaders to be the first guy in line,” he said. “I was speaking with my wife last night and she said it would be an opportunity for you to represent the health worker community. Being out there taking the first sessions of the vaccination activities.”
Roperez, a nurse at the Canyon Springs Post-Acute nursing home, comes face to face with the deadly coronavirus everyday when he swabs patients for COVID-19. At the San Jose facility, 93 patients and 53 staff members have contracted COVID-19. Twelve patients died.
Until now, his only real protection against the infectious virus were masks, soap and hand sanitizer.
Roperez wasted no time when he learned he’d be among the first health care workers in Santa Clara County to receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine. He arrived an hour early at the fairgrounds on a brisk winter morning for his shot.
He was so early that a security guard asked what he was doing there.
“In the email it said that I should be there by 9:30, but I was there an hour earlier, to make sure that I wasn’t late,” he said.
Roperez said the only pain he felt was the nurse pinching his skin to avoid injecting his muscle.”The actual hit of the needle, I didn’t even notice that,” he said. “When (the nurse) was done, she just put a little sticker and that was about it.”
People should not fear the vaccine, Roperez said, adding he did not experience any immediate side effects.
Roperez said people see the COVID-19 numbers on TV, but don’t really understand what’s going inside the skilled nursing facilities. Seeing the pandemic’s toll firsthand is what pushed him to get immunized.
“The first wave hit us very, very badly,” Roperez said. “But then we learned our lessons. We were able to take the proper precautions and lessons that we got from the past.”
As a Filipino man, the virus has hit him and his colleagues harder than others.
National Nurses United, a union representing health care workers across the country, found as of September at least 213 registered nurses have died of COVID-19 in 2020. The research found 31.5% of those nurses were Filipino.
But Roperez made history by being the first at the fairgrounds to roll up his sleeve and take the vaccine that could save his life.
“Even though it lasted just seconds, administering the first vaccine represents an incredible moment in history. With this vaccine we can begin to relieve the crushing burden on our health care workers and start our journey back to better days,” said Dr. Narinder Singh of the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. “Stopping a pandemic requires using all the tools we have available and I look forward to the time when all Americans can be vaccinated.”
Santa Clara County on Dec. 17 administered its first rounds of COVID-19 vaccines — vaccinating about 210 people. The county began dipping into the 5,850 Pfizer vaccines out of 17,550 allotted for it by California.
County officials gave vaccines at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds — the largest site of COVID-19 testing — as well as three county hospitals: Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, O’Connor Hospital and St. Louise Regional Hospital. Earlier in the week, the VA administered vaccines at a local hospital in Palo Alto.
The same day, the county reported 943 new COVID-19 cases and eight new deaths. The county has recorded 51,233 COVID-19 cases and 561 deaths.
Only a fraction of health care workers in the county will receive the vaccine in the next few weeks.
Public health officials expect to receive 39,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine over the next few weeks, pending its approval.
People who receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must follow up with a booster shot a few weeks after their first dose. Roperez said his booster shot is due Jan. 7.
Roperez said he hopes all his colleagues in Silicon Valley’s health care industry get vaccinated.
On the day he got the vaccine, his health facility, which serves up to 126 people, had no COVID-19 cases.
The best way to protect others from COVID-19, officials said, is to continue wearing a mask and social distancing, which Roperez was instructed to continue doing even after getting vaccinated.
If more people think about protecting their community as a whole, Roperez believes COVID-19 cases would begin to decrease.
“Imagine if all families are thinking that way,” he said. “Then we would curb down the possibilities of spreading the virus.”
Eugene Luu and Vicente Vera contributed to this article.
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.