Jake Dornblaster walked into the conference room shortly after 8:30 Tuesday morning with an exclamation, “I never thought I would be delivering the most desired item in America.”
He held out a soft-shelled cooler the size of a lunch box. Inside were three vials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, enough to vaccinate 30 people. A thermometer in the cooler beeped as he spoke, registering a steady negative-64 degrees.
Dornblaster had been up since 4 a.m. preparing for this important day. By 9 a.m. he had gathered his team, calling out assignments and reviewing last-minute logistics, to start the work at hand.
That morning, Multnomah County Health Department staff began administering COVID-19 vaccinations to County employees identified in the state’s highest-priority group, including employees from Multnomah County primary care clinics, the Public Health and Corrections Health divisions, and Sheriff’s Office, as well as and a small number of employees in the Department of County Human Services who work in a hospital setting.
And Tuesday’s work would serve as the trial run for the busy vaccination clinics planned in the following days and weeks, when employees can check in for scheduled appointments, get their COVID-19 vaccine (a process indistinguishable from a flu shot), then wait 15 minutes while a nurse hovers nearby, in the event someone has an allergic reaction.
“Have them wait 15 minutes,” Dornblaster emphasized. “If they try to go to the bathroom, stop them.OK, let’s go and take our spots.”
The County is receiving doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, both of which are similarly effective when it comes to preventing COVID-19. Taking the vaccine is voluntary, and the cost is covered by County medical insurance plans. Safety requirements, including keeping physical distance and wearing masks, will not change for employees who receive the vaccine.
Portia Pasiaka, a nurse at the East County Health Center COVID-19 testing site, was the first County employee to get the vaccine.
“I feel very grateful, I feel very happy to have this opportunity,” she said in the waiting room afterward.
She said she’s heard from some people who are concerned about safety because the vaccine was created so quickly, but she wasn’t worried. The vaccine trials showed that allergic reactions are rare and side effects are mild, like soreness and redness at the injection site — similar to those following the flu vaccine, she said.
“We have gotten rid of a lot of diseases because of vaccines,” she said. “I have no concerns at all. I’d rather have the mild side effects of the vaccine than get COVID-19.”
“Are you feeling OK,” she asked the four people vaccinated after her.
Jan Acebo, the County’s Emergency Management Services Coordinator, sat in the back of the room, unphased.
Acebo has spent much of the pandemic mired in logistics — drafting protocols, criteria and plans. He’s also worked on special projects and stepped in as a tester at COVID-19 test sites.
“It’s what science says we need to do,” he said. “I’m not worried about it. It’s a new vaccine, but I’m not worried. Statistically it’s low risk.”
Matias Lorenzon, a nurse at the County’s drive-through test sites, acknowledged “this is a big deal,” but they had places to be and didn’t have time to linger. They kept an eye on their watch for the 15 minutes to pass, then checked out so they could get back to work.
Jaelyn Tanga, also a nurse and COVID-19 tester, spent her 15-minute wait thinking back on a year that had changed so much.
“COVID has affected so many things, and I am just reflecting on what I value, wanting to hold loved ones close and not being able to do that, finding ways to connect in new ways,” she said.
“It’s cool to see everyone work together to help prevent this,” she said. “Initially I was concerned about how fast the vaccine came out. But I read the science, and so much of the lag is because of funding. And I took comfort knowing this is for the benefit of everyone. I'm very excited.”
Among the last Public Health employees to get a vaccine Tuesday was Communicable Disease Director Kim Toevs. Like Tanga, she looked back on a weighty year that demanded so much.
The vaccine is not a silver bullet. People cannot let down their guard. But Toevs said the vaccine is a very tangible part of the solution.
“I come from prevention and a lot of our prevention has been sharing information, and it has been up to other people to take action, to wear masks, to manage their social interactions,” she said. “This feels closer. I’m excited by how effective this could be, at least for the person who gets the vaccine.”
There are still unanswered questions about the vaccine: how long it will protect a person, whether a vaccinated person can still pass on the virus, and how many people need the vaccine to reach a community level of protection.
This vaccine doesn’t hint at a return to normalcy, but perhaps we’ll look back and recognize this moment as pivotal.
“I hope so,” she said.