As Mubarak Dawaki, MD, rolled up his sleeve for a COVID-19 vaccination Monday, his heart filled with gratitude and hope.

“I’ve been looking forward to this,” said Dr. Dawaki, one of the first to receive the vaccine at Spectrum Health. “This is going to be the miracle we have been waiting for.”

As a hospitalist, Dr. Dawaki works on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic at Spectrum Health Butterworth and Blodgett hospitals.

He has seen the devastation the virus has brought to patients, their families and the community.

“This is one of the most difficult times in my practice,” he said. “I have never had this many conversations with families about how someone has been extremely sick or dying because of this infection. It is definitely gut wrenching.”

He hailed the release of the vaccine as an important step toward defeating COVID-19.

“With COVID-19 infections plaguing the entire country, I look forward to seeing us get back to some normalcy,” he said.

Spectrum Health received its first shipment—975 doses—of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer about 9 a.m. Monday.

At noon, the first five team members working on the health care front lines received those first doses. In addition to Dr. Dawaki, the group included a pulmonologist, an environmental services technician and two nurses who work in the intensive care unit.

Health care providers have looked with great anticipation to the arrival of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19. In the year since the virus was identified, more than 16 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 300,000 people have died from it.

“Today marks the next chapter of our fight against COVID-19,” said Tina Freese-Decker, President and Chief Executive Officer of Spectrum Health.

To see the first vaccinations administered was “momentous,” she said.

“We are making history right now. It gives us such great hope to know what is coming forward in 2021.”

‘An early Christmas present’

The first vaccines, produced by Pfizer, received emergency use authorization Friday from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities receive the first shots.

“I had no reservation about rolling up my sleeve at all,” said Marc McClelland, MD, a pulmonologist who works in the ICU caring for patients with COVID-19. “I have read the studies (from the vaccine’s clinical trials).”

The possible side effects reported in the trials were short-term and similar to ones reported with other vaccines, he said. Patients might have a sore arm, or they might feel achy, tired and a little feverish as the immune system ramps up the production of antibodies.

Dr. McClelland said he is impressed by the coordination involved in testing, producing and distributing the vaccine so quickly.

“If you had asked me even three or four months ago, I would have said I would be surprised to get this as an early Christmas present,” he said.

As the vaccine becomes widely available throughout the country, Dr. McClelland hopes it will spare many people from COVID-19 infections. And he looked forward to easing the burden on health care team members on the front lines.

“There is a lot of stress that goes with taking care of a very contagious illness,” he said. “I’ve been constantly inspired by my co-workers’ dedication and hard work. The teamwork everyone displays has been inspiring.”

The vaccine, he said, holds out hope that “we will eventually get back to some sort of normalcy.”

Dr. McClelland urged others to remain vigilant about precautions to avoid transmission of the virus. Wash your hands frequently, wear a mask in public and keep at least 6 feet from others in public, he said.

“It is going to be some time before this is widely distributed. And it will be a while before we know the full effect on the community,” he said.

‘I consider it a blessing’

Spectrum Health expects to receive 5,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine before next week, said Darryl Elmouchi, MD, President of Spectrum Health West Michigan.

The Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at -70 degree Celsius, will be kept in three deep-freeze freezers. One is in Grand Rapids, and the other two are in regional areas to serve Spectrum Health’s regional hospitals.

Although team members are encouraged to get the vaccine, it is not required at this time, Dr. Elmouchi said.

The vaccine will be scheduled in phases for team members in the Grand Rapids and regional hospitals.

ICU nurse Yvette Kamana, RN, read about the research into the vaccines and the data from the clinical trials before volunteering to get the vaccine.

“The more data they released, the more optimistic I became,” she said. “I consider it a blessing to be one of the first people to get the vaccine.”

Caring for patients with COVID-19 has been “emotionally trying as a health care worker,” she said. “We see a lot of patients that are critically ill. It has taken a toll on our emotions and our own physical being.”

Kamana encouraged others to look into the research behind the vaccine and to discuss it with their doctors.

“Follow the science. Hopefully more people will get vaccinated and we can get hold of this virus,” she said. “For me it presents hope that we are getting somewhere with COVID-19.”

When Jim Soerens, RN, received the vaccination, it felt like a flu shot.

“I feel maybe a little tenderness at the site but nothing to speak of,” he said.

Soerens, an ICU nurse, cares for the most critically ill patients with COVID-19. He knows how devastating an infection can be for some people.

And he worries about the lingering symptoms reported by some people who have recovered from the virus.

Given the opportunity to receive the vaccine, he readily agreed.

“I’m glad I will be able to stay healthy and care for other people,” he said.

The vaccine “certainly is a very big, exciting step forward,” he said. “Hopefully, this is the very beginning of the end.”

Connie Marble, an environmental services technician who works in the ICU, said the vaccine brings peace of mind.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I feel like this vaccine is a start—to see if we can end this pandemic we are in. It has been such a long year.”

She did not hesitate to get the injection. But she was pleasantly surprised to be among the first to receive it.

As for the shot itself, she said, “To be honest, I didn’t feel anything.”