The quiet excitement in the room was palpable as five OSF Saint Francis Medical Center health workers sat down in a cushy blue chair one by one, rolled up their sleeves, and received their first dose of Pfizer's newly authorized COVID-19 vaccine.
Peoria, which lies close to the state's strategic medical stockpile, was tapped to show the first vaccinations to people downstate.
Gov. JB Pritzker was in attendance Tuesday for the occasion.
"This is a beginning for the state of Illinois," Pritzker said. "People getting vaccinated, particularly our health care workers, is an exciting moment."
The first 48,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived on Monday. Frontline health workers and high-risk long-term care facility residents will take priority for the first several batches of vaccinations.
Among the volunteers to receive the first vaccines were Juan Fernandez, 22, a transporter; Victor Chan, 35, the hospital's chief of emergency services; 38-year-old Doug Meyer of Bartonville, a respiratory therapist; Evelyn Tatum, who works in environmental services; and 41-year-old Chemica Jones, a CNA. All five work at Saint Francis in Peoria. All five volunteered, and were eligible based on their risk factors and contact with COVID-19 positive patients.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the public should have confidence in the vaccine.
"I know that many people in this community will know these wonderful individuals who have worked on behalf of their communities to save lives and provide needed services, and now are able to take these steps to protect their own lives," Ezike said. "So, I think everyone has reason to be excited that we're at the beginning of the end."
And in case you were wondering, the COVID-19 vaccine stored at -80 degrees Celsius doesn't hurt. Take it from one of the first people in Illinois to receive the new drug.
"If you're used to the flu vaccine, less than that," said Meyer, the respiratory therapist. "You barely felt the needle go in. You didn't feel too much pressure. I didn't really know what to expect, but I was happy it was the lesser."
Meyer said he was feeling fine after getting the shot and unafraid of any side effects.
Evelyn Tatum, the environmental services worker, agreed.
"There are people who are terrified about it. But I have faith. And if this is what we're going to have to do, then this is what we're going to have to do," she said.
In the Peoria area alone, more than 8,000 OSF employees are waiting their turn to get the vaccine, said OSF Saint Francis Medical Center President Bob Anderson.
"The pace of vaccination really depends on what we get from the state, and there's still some uncertainty as to the rollout and the number of doses," Anderson said.
Medical workers in Chicago also received COVID-19 vaccines on Tuesday. But Ezike said a wider rollout is imminent for the state's health care workers.
"We have 96 hospitals that will be giving vaccines this week," she said, noting all Illinois hospitals will be engaged by next week.
The five OSF HealthCare employees receiving vaccines on Tuesday are due for a booster shot in 21 to 28 days to receive the full benefit of the new vaccine. For Tatum, that day can't come soon enough.
"I hope when we get that next dose, that they say, you can take it (the mask) off. Believe me, I'll be ripping this off," she said.
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