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Local Hospitals Start to Vaccinate Their Docs, Others

As physicians and front-line hospital staff rolled up their sleeves for the first round of immunizations against COVID on Monday, Dec. 21, it was a tale of contrasts in how the day was marked between the Brawley and El Centro facilities.

El Centro Regional Medical Center ophthalmologist Dr. Arnett Carraby smiles as he takes the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on his birthday during a Facebook Live press conference at the hospital campus on Monday, Dec. 21. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

At Pioneers Memorial Hospital, a few photos and a press release sufficed. But with El Centro Regional Medical Center, it was a no-holds-barred press junket live on social media, with the hospital’s chief administrator operating almost as a talk-show host, interviewing staff both before and after their turn under the needle.

Either way, the intent and message was the same: this was a momentous day in a county that has been relentlessly dogged and beaten down by COVID-19 from the very start of the pandemic nine months ago.

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“It’s an absolute incredible day today. I’m so grateful that we have the vaccine, that we’re able to vaccinate our front-line workers in the hospital, our physicians, and pretty soon our community,” past El Centro Regional Chief of Staff, Dr. Seung Gwon, said via a Facebook Live press conference that started at noon.

“It will be the first step in being able to finally turn the tide of the pandemic we’ve been suffering through for the last (nine) months. It’s a wonderful day,” she said.

In a press release sent out shortly after 1 p.m. Monday, Pioneers Chief Executive Officer Larry Lewis commented on the work necessary to quickly mobilize the effort to vaccinate staff.

“The process and procedures needed to administer this vaccine are not easy,” Lewis stated. “There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work that needed to come together very quickly for us to be able to do this today. We are extremely grateful for the effort and dedication put forth by multiple departments and staff over the last few days. They did this while still facing the challenges of the virus in growing in-patient population.”

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Front-line healthcare workers from the Imperial County Public Health Department were the first to be vaccinated on Friday, Dec. 18, and emergency medical technicians and paramedics in the county were to start being immunized on Tuesday, Dec. 22.

Monday’s immunizations took place as both hospitals were feeling the effects of COVID in increasingly worsening ways, each setting new daily records for COVID and patient counts.

Dr. Jorge Robles, who heads up El Centro Regional Medical Center’s satellite clinics, receives the COVID-19 inoculation during a media event at the hospital’s main campus on Monday, Dec. 21. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

El Centro Regional had 131 COVID-positive patients in its hospital on Dec. 21 of a total of 175 admitted. At Pioneers, there were 63 COVID patients of a total of 86 patients.

Further, intensive-care capacity for the Southern California Region was at zero percent capacity for the fifth consecutive day as of late Monday night.

Although it wasn’t available how many Pioneers staffers were inoculated, Lewis stated only a small allotment of the vaccine was delivered to the Brawley hospital Monday morning.

It was the same for El Centro, which started the press conference from the laboratory of the hospital’s pharmacy. ECRMC Clinical Pharmacist Danny Tirado welcomed viewers by announcing that the Public Health Department had delivered 40 vials, or roughly 200 of the hospital’s 475-alloted doses, of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that morning.

“Due to the stability issues, that’s what we reserved for the day,” Tirado added.

The Pfizer vaccine can be volatile. Not only does it have to be transported and stored at negative-94 degrees Fahrenheit, once it leaves the county Public Health Department’s freezers, it has a shelf life of only several days, according to Pfizer information.

Past El Centro Regional Medical Center Chief of Staff, Dr. Seung Gwon, gets the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, Dec. 21, at the hospital campus. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

It also was not available just how many people were vaccinated at El Centro Regional on Monday, but Chief Executive Officer Adolphe Edward has said that the plans were to immunize between 40 and 50 front-line staff per day.

While others beyond physicians were likely given their first dose of the two-dose vaccine Monday, both hospitals rolled out their doctors for the purposes of public consumption.

Pioneers sent photos of Dr. Michael Krutzik, an intensivist and the county’s only critical care pulmonologist, and Dr. Matthew Nolan, an emergency medicine specialist, getting their vaccinations.

ECRMC invited — and Edward interviewed — several physicians across multiple disciplines.

One of the most heart-wrenching and candid interviews came from emergency room physician, Dr. Alexis Lenz.

“It’s been really difficult, honestly. We’ve been overwhelmed, overrun. We don’t have the space for anybody. We’ve been holding patients for days because we can’t get them transferred, can’t get beds for them,” said Lenz, who did not mince words, speaking at a fast clip, as if she was not amused by the fanfare going on around her.

An El Centro Regional Medical Center medical assistant prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to administer at a press conference on Monday, Dec. 21. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

“It’s worse than it was even the first time around. (We’re) hoping this will start changing things and turn things around for the community and the doctors in the ER to get the help we need,” she said.

As he sat in a chair, waiting for his vaccine to be administered, radiologist Dr. John Dalle was asked by Edward what this day meant to him.

“It means a lot to all of us here. It’s the beginning of the end of this tragedy, a chance to get a cure to this horrible disease that’s really changed our lives in so many ways,” Dalle said.

Near the start of the press conference, Dr. Jorge Robles, who heads up the El Centro hospital’s satellite clinics, said that while the measures that have been in place to limit the spread of COVID should not be abandoned, the advent of the vaccine marks an important period in what has been nearly a year into the pandemic.

“This vaccine really opens up the first opportunity we’ve had to prevent the illness to the point of progressing to hospitalization,” Robles said. “As you know, our health system in general here locally, state, and federal are overwhelmed with the number of admissions we need to attend to.”

Pioneers Memorial Hospital’s Dr. Michael Krutzik, an intensivist and Imperial County’s only critical care pulmonologist, was the first person to receive the COVID vaccine at the Brawley hospital on Monday, Dec. 21. | COURTESY PHOTO

Officials from both hospitals maintained that while the vaccine is an important step, vigilance with the protocols that have been in place since early on are needed, including social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and staying at home and avoiding gatherings.

Edward added that nonessential travel should also be stopped. He said that people are not following that suggestion, as airports in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Mexicali were all full Monday due to holiday travel, he said.

Amid near-nonexistent ICU capacity for the region, officials from the hospitals discussed patient capacity and staffing.

For Pioneers, Lewis focused on the need for more medical staff, while Dr. Gwon talked about making room for more patients.

With 86 total patients Dec. 21, Lewis said staffing is a concern. “Our administration continuously explores every local and state resource to see where we can pull more staff from. … We did receive DMAT support staff as well as a few (certified nurses’ assistants) from FEMA last week, which will help tremendously,” he said.

Dr. Matthew Nolan, an emergency medicine specialist at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, gets a COVID-19 vaccination on Monday, Dec. 21. | COURTESY PHOTO

Gwon said that more operating room space had been converted over on Monday to be used as COVID patient rooms to handle the overflow of an increasing number coming through the hospital.

“It’s an example of how tight things have become, how hard everyone is working, and the hospital is literally bursting at the seams, so it’s so important to maintain safe practices,” she said. “I know everyone’s tired. COVID fatigue is real, but it’s not done with us yet.

“But the vaccine will be a great first step to help mitigate the disease,” Gwon added.