SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah Health nurse Christy Mulder called it “an overwhelming day” after receiving the first COVID-19 vaccination in Utah, just hours after the first doses arrived at the campus hospital Tuesday.

“Lots of emotions. Excitement. Joy. I’m still trying to process it all,” Mulder said at a virtual news conference held afterward. “I’m definitely excited. I’m excited for this next step that we are taking to end this painful pandemic, excited that we can be looking forward, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Mulder, a medical intensive care unit nurse, said she has always seen “a lot of suffering, a lot of death,” but the difference with COVID-19 patients is that “it feels so much longer ... that weight feels heavier and heavier over time. To see a vaccine, to get a vaccine, it really is overwhelming. It’s the beginning of the end, and that’s really hopeful.”

Later Tuesday, Monte Roberts, an ICU critical care nurse at LDS Hospital, became emotional as he expressed his feelings about being Intermountain Healthcare’s first front-line health care provider vaccinated during a news conference.

“We see COVID every day. And it’s super emotional and super frustrating to come in and see patients that struggle,” he said, adding, “That’s not something you can really prepare for. It’s a struggle. It’s taxing on everyone. It’s taxing on the team. It’s taxing on you as a nurse and it doesn’t go away. When you leave the hospital, you still feel that.”

Intermountain Healthcare registered nurse Julie Nelson, left, vaccinates fellow registered nurse Monte Roberts for COVID-19 at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

He said hospital staff do the best with what they have. “Sometimes it’s just not enough.”

The vaccine, Roberts said, offers hope that “this pandemic, this frustration that we’re all going through as a community, and as individuals, and as families and as patients, that we can beat this. We’re going to come through this together.”

Eight other front-line workers were vaccinated at University of Utah and LDS hospitals Tuesday to kick off the effort by the health care systems to immunize employees throughout the state who are most at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

“This is a huge, momentous day that gives me such joy and pride. We have an amazing state that has come together to distribute and get through all of the logistics,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said at the Intermountain Healthcare news conference.

Front-line hospital workers are at the top of the list for the vaccine, and nursing home residents and staff are expected to begin getting vaccinated later this month, followed in January by teachers. The vaccine is not anticipated to be available to the general public until next spring.

Dunn said it likely will be “late summer before we can have confidence that a vast majority of Utahns have taken the vaccine and we can rely on herd immunity.” She urged Utahns again to “continue being vigilant” throughout the holiday season by wearing masks and taking other measures to help stop the spread of the virus.

Utah’s initial shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, given emergency authorization last Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, arrived Monday at two Intermountain Healthcare hospitals in Salt Lake City and Provo. More doses arrived Tuesday at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and Dixie Regional Hospital in St. George.

By 4 p.m., Intermountain Healthcare reported more than 90 workers, including nurses, doctors and janitorial staff had been vaccinated at LDS Hospital. The health care system had announced Monday vaccinations would not start until Wednesday, but then moved up the schedule.

U. Health was notified just before 7 a.m. Tuesday that its first doses of the vaccine had arrived in Salt Lake City, said Kavish Choudhary, senior director of the University of Utah Health pharmacy, describing it as “a bit of a whirlwind morning.”

On a Facebook video of the first inoculations at the University of Utah Hospital, Mulder and others cheered and applauded after she received what will be the first of two shots, 21 days apart. “It feels great. No pain,” she said afterward on the post, noting she closed her eyes during the injection to reflect on what it meant.

Roberts spoke of his strong belief in the vaccine, expected to be followed soon by others.

“I think that my faith is in the faith of research. My faith is in the physicians and all of the people who have done so many hours to bring us to where we are,” he said, “I’m 100% behind those people, because those people are what keep me safe, keep my patients safe, and keep my family safe.”

Even as inoculations get underway, the state still is seeing a high rate of positive test results, and an increasing number of deaths. On Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 15 more fatalities from COVID-19, and an additional 1,915 cases.

The death toll in Utah now stands at 1,077, and there have been 237,787 infections since the pandemic struck in March.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 2,540 per day, and the average percent of positive laboratory tests is 23.2%. The state reported 9,012 test results Tuesday.

There are 553 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Total hospitalizations from the beginning of the outbreak are 9,585. There continues to be concern that ICUs and other hospital facilities are being maxed out by coronavirus patients.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Tuesday that her dad recently needed a bed at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray due to health issues he’s experiencing, “and there wasn’t a bed.”

He was transported by ambulance to Utah County, she said, before he was able to return to the Murray hospital. 

Wilson said she’s more concerned about COVID-19 spread now than ever due to the strain on hospitals, although the county is seeing a slight decrease in cases. 

“We have 10 days to go until Christmas. We’re several days into Hanukkah now” and spread is happening within families, according to Wilson. 

“We will see more fatalities. We will go back at some point and review November, December — I hope not January and February — and be able to gauge higher mortality not just with COVID but with other people coming in,” Wilson said during a County Council meeting on Tuesday.

“It’s a dark, dark, dark time right now,” she said, asking people to limit their social interactions during the rest of the holiday season.

The Utah deaths reported Tuesday are:

  • A Weber County woman, between the ages of 45 and 64, and a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County woman and a man, both between 65 and 84, and both hospitalized at time of death.
  • Two Washington County men, one 25-44 and one older than 85, both hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Utah County woman and a man, both 65-84, both hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Utah County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • A Utah County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Two Salt Lake County men, one 25-44 and one 65-84, both hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • An Iron County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Duchesne County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Davis County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.

Contributing: Ashley Imlay