COVID-19 Vaccinations Begin for Benefis Healthcare Workers

Feelings of joy, relief, hope, and grief mingled as vaccination against COVID-19 began Thursday at Benefis Health System.

Don Spady, a sterile processing technician, was the first to receive the vaccine. For him, it represents safety at work and the chance to see his young grandson again. He recently had to skip the boy’s second birthday party in Denver to keep everyone safe.

“I made his first, and I want to go to them all,” he said.

The shot wasn’t painful and the dose small, just .3 ml, he said. “Not much, especially if it does the job, fingers crossed.”

Jillian Greenaway, an Emergency Department nurse, said the science behind the vaccine is sound, and she wants to do her part to protect the community. 

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“The ED is very busy. I’ve seen the side effects of COVID, and I’m more worried about that than any possible vaccine side effects,” she said. 

And then there are all the people who have come into the ED with post-COVID conditions such as pulmonary embolism. She doesn’t want to worry about that either. 

“With COVID, it seems like something new every day,” she said. 

The vaccine has arrived with staggering speed, a testament to innovation and investment. Never in his career has he seen something like this, said Dr. Greg Tierney, Benefis Health System chief medical officer and executive vice president.

“There are certain times in everyone’s professional life you’ll probably never encounter again, and this is certainly one of them,” he said. “We’re all excited. Finally, maybe, a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a long nine months.”

Montana received 9,750 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, which went to 10 healthcare facilities. Two doses are administered three weeks apart. An estimated 1,700 American healthcare workers have died from COVID-19, National Nurses United reported.

April Woods-Tatarka, who has shouldered an incredible burden as Benefis’ infection prevention coordinator during this pandemic, said she could “literally cry” as the morning of the first vaccinations arrived.

“It’s like a Christmas miracle,” she said.

Benefis Chaplain Richard Brennan, who ministers to COVID patients, their families, and the healthcare workers caring for them, was among the first to receive a vaccine.

“Amazing,” he said, of the medical marvel.

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Benefis has treated COVID-positive patients ages 1 to 101. "Sometimes it’s a surprise who struggles the most," Benefis CEO John Goodnow said. That makes it a “dangerous game” to skip the vaccine and assume you’d be OK if you got COVID because you’re in a low-risk group.

As he rolled up his sleeve for his vaccine, John said he knows people are nervous about a new vaccine but said it’s better than the alternative.

“This is a big deal. The sooner you can get it, the better. I hope everyone who can get it gets it and that everyone steers clear of misinformation,” he said. “COVID has been so hard on everyone, and especially our frontline workers. I’m really glad we have this vaccine now at Benefis.”

Throughout the joy, there was a touch of grief. The vaccine comes too late for more than 800 Montanans, who have died as a result of COVID-19, and it will take time for the vaccine to become widely available. Vigilance remains key, with social distancing, masking, and hand hygiene as important as ever.