As Utah on Wednesday marked one year since the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine made their way to the state, health care workers who were among the first to get vaccinated reflected on what it meant then and where we are now.
Also Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health reported that a boy between the ages of 1 and 14 became the third child in the state under age 18 to die of the disease.
"I cried when I got the call saying that we were going to be able to get the vaccine, because we didn't know when it was coming," said Beth Lapp DeJong, a registered nurse at Intermountain Healthcare's LDS Hospital.
DeJong received her first dose along with others on Dec. 15, 2020.
She saw it as a long-awaited opportunity to keep her family safe several months into fighting the pandemic.
Kavish Choudhary, University of Utah Health's senior pharmacy director who managed the system's vaccine clinic rollout, recalls the event as a "blur." After receiving a notification the previous day that some of Utah's first doses had left a plant in Michigan, he spent the night "glued" to his phone tracking them. When they arrived, he spent the day in a "mad rush" preparing the vaccines to be administered to his colleagues — front-line health care workers.
The arrival meant "we at least had something that could protect a lot of the folks out there," Choudhary said.
For many, vaccines meant an end in sight to the pandemic.
But one year later, COVID-19 remains a prominent concern in Utah as it has continued to ebb and flow throughout the year. As of Wednesday, 62.2% of the population over 5 years of age has been fully vaccinated.
DeJong expressed disappointment at the division in attitudes that have formed over the vaccine.
"I thought it meant that it was a time for the community to come together and keep everyone safe, but we seem to have two groups, and unfortunately the group that's not vaccinated is what's filling up our hospitals now," she said. "We're in the same place we were back then, but now it's preventable."
"I think the hardest part is that now we're at a spot where it's not mostly the old (people) coming in. A lot of them are old, but a lot of them are young, and by all accounts they should not be here. And, either they leave us in a body bag, or they leave us not being able to do the things they could before," DeJong added.
Likewise, registered nurse Amanda Vicchrilli, who also works at LDS Hospital, notes her frustration with "coming to work and dealing with COVID every day, and seeing how it impacts our families, our patients, us as caregivers, and to see that people are still very uneasy about it and still don't take COVID seriously," she said.
Still, she's grateful for the protection and added comfort the vaccine has given her in the last year.
"I do think that it's given me, personally, a sense of just that added safety, and I think for a lot of caregivers who have received the vaccine, every time we go into a room like this we put on our personal protective equipment, and that's just a piece of that," Vicchrilli explained.
Choudhary said he hasn't been completely surprised by pushback against the vaccine.
"I think we anticipated it to a certain extent because there are just so many unknowns," he said.
He also doesn't see the vaccine as a "cure-all" to the pandemic, but a helpful tool.
"The vaccines are still a great tool in fighting the pandemic," Choudhary said. "It is extremely helpful in reducing the immune response … and there are still folks out there that cannot get a shot, so this is a great way to protect your loved ones and your neighbors."
Despite the division surrounding vaccines, DeJong remains optimistic.
"I think we've come so far. We can vaccinate kids down to (age) 5 now, and while they may not be at great risk to have issues, they can keep their parents and their grandparents safe," she said.
Vicchrilli said nearly two years into the pandemic, there's still nothing she'd rather do than be a nurse.
"It wears on us as health care providers," she said. "I think everyone can feel it everywhere, from what I can understand. But here in our hospital we can definitely feel it, and you just try to take it day by day, hour by hour, and we're just pushing through and we wouldn't do anything different."
New Utah data
A Utah child between the ages of 1 and 14 was among the newly reported deaths due to COVID-19.
Utah health officials reported 1,306 new COVID-19 cases, as well as 15 total deaths on Wednesday. The rolling, seven day average for new cases is now 1,090, and the average positive rate of those tested is 13.7%, the Utah Department of Health said.
"Children who get COVID-19 can get really sick, and unfortunately, as we are reporting today, can die. This is a tragic reminder that COVID-19 is still spreading in our communities and is still causing preventable deaths. Vaccines help prevent serious illness and death," Dr. Leisha Nolen, state epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, said in a statement.
"Please, if you or your child haven't been vaccinated yet, now is the time," she added.
The child who died was a Davis County boy. He was the third child in Utah under age 18 to die due to the pandemic disease. Additional details were not released.
School-age children accounted for 194 of Wednesday's reported cases — 86 cases were ages 5-10, 46 were 11-13, and 62 were 14-17.
Health care workers administered 47,790 vaccine doses since Monday, bringing total doses given in Utah to 4,375,884. That number includes booster shots.
Of the cases reported Wednesday, 390 were "breakthrough," meaning the patients were fully vaccinated. Three of the deaths were also breakthrough. To date, there have been 54,631 breakthrough cases and 329 breakthrough deaths confirmed in Utah since vaccines became available one year ago.
The additional deaths reported Wednesday include:
- A Utah County woman older than 85, who was hospitalized when she died.
- A San Juan County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, 65-84, not hospitalized.
- A Davis County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Davis County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Juab County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Grand County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- An Iron County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Box Elder County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Davis County woman, older than 85, hospitalized.
- A Washington County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 45-64, hospitalized.