Reasons for optimism: 1 year after first COVID-19 vaccine in US administered, doctors express hope

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Dec. 14 marks one year since the first COVID-19 vaccine in the United States was administered, ushering in a new era in facing the pandemic.

"I think the excitement of being able to vaccinate our frontline workers who've been working all this time during COVID, it was just overwhelming to be a part of that," said Karen Robins, Manager of WakeMed Corporate & Community Health.

Four days later, WakeMed administered its' first vaccine and has since given out more than 140,000 doses. Their efforts extended off-campus and included targeted events to reach underserved areas.

"That was a huge part of it is trying to meet people where they are. That was part of the drive-thru clinics. The strike teams going out to churches in the communities, vaccinating people wherever they're most comfortable," said Dr. Erin Koontz, Manger of WakeMed Pharmacy Services.

Early in the pandemic, there were supply limitations and logistical challenges in distributing vaccines, oftentimes to smaller and rural clinics. During that period, WakeMed shared nearly 50,000 doses with practices and facilities; Koontz added that these issues have since been addressed.

More than 3/4 of eligible Americans (5 years old and older) are at least partially vaccinated, with boosters now available for the bulk of that group. However, COVID-19 metrics are once again ticking up, and doctors are urging people to not let their guards down, especially as travel frequency increases and temperatures drop.

"We're playing sort of a long game here with COVID, which is trying to evolve to evade us at the same time and evade our vaccines. And so as long as we continue to be 2/3 to 1/2 vaccinated, COVID has a window to continue to make people sick," said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist with Duke Health.

Last week, the Omicron variant, believed to be more transmissible, was identified in North Carolina, though the Delta variant still remains the dominant strain. Wolfe noted that Duke Health has administered nearly 400,000 vaccinations during the past year, which he said he believes has prevented a staggering number of hospitalizations. Still, the US is preparing to hit a sobering milestone -- 800,000 deaths - the majority of which are amongst the unvaccinated.

"Nationally, we still lose more than 1,000 people a day. That's a sort of hard number to wrap your head around. Yet that's still occurring. We still have deaths here. And it's difficult because it's a lonely death," said Wolfe.

Despite this, both Wolfe and Koontz expressed reasons for optimism heading into 2022.

"We're better at handling patients than we were two years ago. That's very clear. If you come to the hospital, heaven forbid, our chance of getting you recovered and out of here is way better than what it was 18 months ago," said Wolfe.

Koontz added: "I think we just have to keep working. We do have more tools this time, we have more vaccine, more access. We have other therapeutics, the (monoclonal antibody) infusion clinics, and things coming down the pipeline. So as much as it might feel disheartening, I think we've got some other opportunities and so it at least feels like we've got more tools in our toolbox to have this winter be a better winter than last year."
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