More health care workers are starting to receive the first COVID-19 vaccine. That includes at the Milwaukee VA hospital, which has about 4,000 employees. The immunization of staff may shed some light on how things will eventually go for veterans who use the Zablocki Medical Center and other VA sites.
Not all medical facilities are inviting the news media in to watch people get their first round of the COVID-19 vaccine. But Wednesday, the Milwaukee VA provided access to five employees who got their shots. One of them, Katherine Matz, is a clinical nurse specialist who works in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit, after working at three similar units elsewhere in the U.S.
Matz said she's seen some difficult situations. "A lot of incredibly sick individuals, who unfortunately have a hard road to recovery,” she shared.
Another Zablocki employee who volunteered to receive the vaccine is Joanna Owens, an Army veteran who's a housekeeper on the COVID-19 unit floor. Owens said when the coronavirus first arrived at the hospital, she was worried about getting sick. But since then, she's had training and teamwork.
"The nurses there work with me very well, and we work together as a team. So, they make sure if there's anything I need or anything I'm not understanding, that I'm properly protected before I go into these rooms. I like that,” said Owens.
Still, Owers said she believes the vaccine will give her additional protection. So, inside a small clinic at the VA, Owens walked over to get her shot from registered nurse Arch Johnston. He read a list of possible side effects from the Pfizer vaccine, the only one that's been federally approved so far.
"Muscle pain, joint pain, chills, you could get a fever,” said Johnston.
Soon, Owens received a shot. Matz received one too, and joked about not being given a cool bandage.
"Yeah, that's a big disappointment,” she said.
The Zablocki Medical Center has received 3,000 doses of the vaccine so far. Pharmacy Chief Kim Bell said she hopes a "good number” of employees will get a shot, but acknowledges immunization is voluntary because the federal government has only given the vaccine what's called Emergency Use Authorization.
“It's gone through the safety trials but hasn't reached that step of full approval or licensing. So, while it's under Emergency Use Authorization, there will be no mandate for anybody to get it here,” she said.
Bell said she's waiting for the federal government to decide when the VA can give the vaccine to military veterans. She said many are older and have other serious health problems, called comorbidities. But Bell said that doesn't mean the vaccine puts them at greater risk.
"I don't think so. As we're talking about the older population, or with comorbidities, it's probably more important that they receive the vaccine. We do know they're the ones more likely to have more severe outcomes if they contract COVID,” she said.
Veterans and many other members of the general public — some of them perhaps skeptical of the vaccine — may be watching closely how the health care workers respond to their first shot, and a second dose 21 days later.
About ten minutes after getting her injection, Joanna Owens sat in a recovery area at Zablocki. She said the needle didn't hurt, and she was given CDC and Pfizer phone numbers to call and websites to visit if she starts to feel any symptoms.
"They give you the right resources, and I like that,” she said.
Vaccine recipient Katherine Matz also said she felt fine. She acknowledged some people won't have friends or loved ones nearby to check on them hours after getting their shot. So, she urged health care providers to do outreach, the way the VA does for other treatments.
"We're always reaching out to say, 'Hey, did that work okay for you? How are you feeling?'" said Matz.
She said good follow-up would only increase public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine.