Standing in front of the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds on a gloomy morning, Dr. Sara Cody delivered a bright message: The county administered its first COVID-19 vaccines.
“At last we have a ray of hope as we are starting to vaccinate,” said Cody, the county’s public health officer, as cars whirled past the busy street nearby. “The vaccine arrived in our county earlier this week. We cannot normalize the devastation around us but we have hope… this pandemic will not last forever.”
Inside the building, around 210 staffers of skilled nursing facilities were receiving the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine in Santa Clara County.
Cliff Roperez, a nurse at Canyon Springs Post-Acute nursing home in San Jose, was the first person to receive the vaccine after being recommended by his workplace. He told San José Spotlight he arrived an hour early.
Roperez said he walked up to the fairgrounds around 8 a.m. and was so early that security guards questioned why he was there.
“I was the first guy at the fairgrounds,” he said. “I was approached by three security guards and for some reason, I wasn’t on the list. They’re like ‘Who are you?’ ”
He said another worker was able to sort out the issue, ensuring that Roperez was first to receive the highly-sought vaccine.
At the nursing home, Roperez swabs residents to check for COVID-19.
“I believe that it’s a risky task because we don’t know. We don’t see the virus,” he said. “But all we have to just rely on are our (personal protective equipment) and making sure that we’re washing our hands and doing the proper care so everyone in the facility are safe and well protected.”
Health officials opened the first vaccine clinic at the fairgrounds — which also serves as a COVID-19 testing facility — on Dec. 17 and began vaccinating people who are in the highest priority group. They represent 5% of all COVID-19 cases in the county, but 45% of the deaths.
Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, O’Connor Hospital and St. Louise Regional Hospital received 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 17 and began giving the shots to ICU and emergency room workers.
Daljeet Rai, 62, a Stanford Health Care physician directing the COVID-19 response at O’Connor hospital, was one of the first people vaccinated at the facility.
“I would encourage everyone to get this vaccine,” Rai said. “When I walk the wards of the hospital, people are hesitant, they’re reluctant, there’s a lot of conspiracy theories, things that are on people’s minds. In reality, we have to trust the science on this.”
The physician said ultimately the vaccine prevents the spread of the virus.
Alexandra Murdough, a registered nurse at the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at O’Connor Hospital, said she received the vaccine because of the toll she’s seen firsthand.
“We’ve seen more on the front lines obviously,” Murdough said. “We have to deal with family and their grief and with the patients not being able to be with their families in their last moments. It’s very hard. That definitely encouraged me to get the vaccine today.”
Santa Clara County received 5,850 doses of the Pfizer vaccine out of 17,500 allotted for it by state officials. Only a fraction of health care workers will have access to the vaccine.
Brian Weaver, a facility administrator at the Forum at Rancho San Antonio senior living home in Cupertino, was one of them. He goes back for the second dose Jan. 7.
“The process went nice and smoothly. I mean, I expected it to go well and it did,” said Weaver, 56, standing in front of the county fairgrounds. “I’m still taking as many precautions as I can since it’s not a sure thing until you get the second dose. But I feel great now that I’ve got this first one down.”
COVID-19 Testing Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib said 6,000 people will be vaccinated in the county over the next few weeks.
“This is certainly a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” Fenstersheib said.
So far, the county is the only health care provider vaccinating people. Private hospitals will receive vaccine doses by next week and Fenstersheib said more providers will have access in the next few months.
It will take immunizing 70-80% of Santa Clara County to reach herd immunity, Fenstersheib said, and allow residents to finally remove their masks and ease social distancing requirements.
Fenstersheib and Cody said they would not be taking the vaccine yet.
“I look forward to the day that I too can be vaccinated,” Cody said. “It’s not yet my turn. We are going in the order our colleagues have set for us.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use Dec. 11. People around the world participated in the vaccine trial, including from Santa Clara County.
Fenstersheib said the county expects to receive 68,000 vaccine doses by end of next week – which includes the first and second allocations of the Pfizer vaccine and first allocation of the Moderna vaccine, pending its approval.
The Moderna vaccine is expected to arrive next week.
However, county leaders urged people to continue social distancing, wearing masks and following the COVID-19 health order.
“I know it’s annoying to wear your mask and people are tired of socially distancing, you should never be tired of washing your hands by the way,” Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. “But this is a time for us to continue to double down, so we can see our way out.”
On Dec. 17, Santa Clara County reported 943 new COVID-19 cases and 8 new deaths from the past few days. The county has a cumulative total of 51,233 COVID-19 cases and 561 deaths.
Newly-elected Supervisor Otto Lee warned that hospitals are reaching capacity in Santa Clara County.
“This is not the time to let our feet off the gas pedal,” he said. “The numbers on ICU capacity are still very low – there’s only about 40 ICU beds available. Our hospitals are full. Please stay home. Stay safe with your family.”
Vicente Vera contributed to this report.
Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.