Emergency Department physician Catalina González Marqués (left) becomes the first member of the Brigham community to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, given by Sarah Kirchofer (right) of Occupational Health Services.

A group of Brigham staff were among the nation’s first to be vaccinated for COVID-19 on Dec. 16 — marking a hopeful and eagerly awaited new chapter in the nearly year-long battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Onlookers burst into cheers and applause as Emergency Department physician Catalina González Marqués, MD, MPH, became the first member of the Brigham community to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday.

Nurse practitioner Elizabeth Donahue prepares a vaccine. Photo credit: James P. Rathmell

“Welcome to history,” Sarah Kirchofer, MSN, RN, NP-C, NE-BC, interim director of Occupational Health Services, told her after giving her the vaccine.

González Marqués said she was honored to be the first recipient.

“It’s our first sign of hope in a while. Cautious optimism, though — we still have a long way to go,” she said. “I’ve seen disproportionate suffering, being an ER doctor, and that’s been tough. I hope to encourage our community to get vaccinated because that’s incredibly important. But this is great news for everybody here. Everyone’s been working so hard.”

The vaccine, which was granted authorization for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is given in two doses and has been shown to be 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19.

“It’s been a really tough year. We have suffered and sacrificed so much, and this is our pathway to get back to some semblance of normality,” said Michael Klompas, MD, hospital epidemiologist. “This vaccine appears to be profoundly effective, so it will make a big difference in our lives and for society as a whole. I am proud that we, as a community of health care workers, are reaching this incredible milestone. It’s no coincidence, either. It’s due to the collective, hard efforts of everybody here.”

The Brigham began distributing the vaccine to staff on Wednesday as part of a soft launch of its COVID-19 Employee Vaccine Program, which rolls out formally on Dec. 17. In coordination with the Mass General Brigham (MGB) system, the vaccine will be made available in four waves to staff over the next two months, based on priorities set forth by the state.

Once the majority of one wave has been vaccinated, the next wave of eligible staff will be able to make an appointment as soon as the supply arrives.

Elizabeth Zambrano, a housekeeper in Environmental Services, receives the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This marks what we hope will be the beginning of the end,” Kirchofer said. “It’s a historic day, and I think everybody feels the excitement.”

The arrival of a vaccine also represents a point of institutional pride in the Brigham’s research community, whose contributions to science and innovation helped make this vaccine possible, said Allison Moriarty, MPH, vice president of Research, Administration and Compliance.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our research community has come together to lead and support clinical trials to evaluate vaccine candidates,” Moriarty said. “The urgency of COVID-19 has pushed us to discover faster ways to safely and effectively launch vaccine clinical trials, and the hard work and perseverance of everyone involved in these efforts have helped bring us to this historic moment.”

A Step Toward Safety

As a unit associate in Environmental Services working on CWN 5, Labor and Delivery, Tereza Pereira is among those eligible to be vaccinated in the first wave. Although initially apprehensive about a new vaccine, Pereira is now eager to receive it. Hearing from experts during a recent virtual forum for staff assured her that the vaccine is safe and effective, she explained.

“We have been waiting for this day to come,” Pereira said. “I remember being so scared in the beginning of the pandemic. I would be crying while I was getting ready for work. This virus has hurt a lot of people, including my family members. When I watched the virtual meeting, I saw the secondary effects of the vaccine are very minor — and they’re better than getting COVID.”

The vaccine’s most commonly reported side effects are soreness at the site of vaccination and mild flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain and chills. To ensure the safety of those who receive the shot, vaccinated individuals will be observed for 15 minutes, which is a standard when receiving a vaccine for the first time. Staff will also receive instructions for reporting any possible side effects they experience and steps they should take depending on the symptoms.

COVID ICU nurse Debelyn Leach, of Shapiro 9 West, becomes the first Brigham nurse to receive the vaccine.

As COVID-19 infections continue to rise in the community, the vaccine’s availability comes at a critical time, said Karl Laskowski, MD, MBA, associate chief medical officer for Ambulatory.

“To some degree, it is the light at the end of the tunnel that we’ve all been hoping for,” said Laskowski, one of the leaders organizing the employee vaccination clinics. “It feels great, but there’s still a long tunnel to travel. This vaccine is coming at the same time we’re seeing our cases rise and infections in the community going up, so there’s an urgency to get this done right and quickly.”

The current environment also means that staff, including those who are vaccinated, will need to continue strictly following the safety guidelines at work, home and in the community.

“Although we have data showing this is an effective vaccine, it’s not going to allow us to change our behavior — we’re still going to have to practice physical distancing, wear masks, not participate in large gatherings and not see friends outside our ‘bubble,’” Laskowski said. “But this is one step that gets us that much closer to being able to resume a more normal life.”

‘I Don’t Have My Fingers Crossed’

Getting the employee vaccine clinics ready while so many logistical details remained fluid — including when the vaccines would arrive and how many doses the Brigham would receive — was no small feat. It was accomplished through the collaboration of a large multidisciplinary team within the Brigham and across the MGB system, explained several clinical and administrative leaders involved in getting the clinics off the ground.

Michael Cotugno of Pharmacy Services transports the first shipment of vaccines.

Among the team’s top priorities has been making equity a key consideration in all aspects of vaccination availability and distribution.

“It is critically important to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine equitably, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is the only way that we will beat this pandemic,” said Wanda McClain, MPA, vice president of Community Health and Health Equity. “It also ensures that Black, Latinx and others who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID are prioritized for vaccination. This puts into action our We Care value, and it builds trust by demonstrating that we are committed to protecting our most at-risk populations.”

Patient vaccine clinics are tentatively planned for the coming months, and preparations are well underway to identify vaccination sites in areas that reach a critical mass of patients, prioritize equity and meet the Pfizer vaccine’s requirements for ultra-cold storage.

“These are complex challenges, but we know how to come together and get things done. We’ve done it before with COVID testing sites and so many other instances before this pandemic because we’re stronger together,” said Kelly Fanning, MBA, vice president of Ambulatory Services. “Everybody is here focused on the mission — to serve our patients and our community. I’m confident that just the sheer will and expertise of the people in this organization will ensure we roll out these clinics with efficiency, safety and with equity at the forefront.”

John Fanikos, RPh, MBA, executive director of Pharmacy Services, agreed that the Brigham’s community commitment to excellence left no doubt in his mind that vaccine distribution would go seamlessly.

“The Brigham always stands out in these situations, and people perform like heroes,” Fanikos said. “I don’t have my fingers crossed. I don’t need to. I know it’s going to be a success.”