Local News

First COVID-19 Vaccines in Orange County Given to Orange Hospital Workers

The first vaccines in Orange County to prevent COVID-19 were administered to five health care workers at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange this morning. Michael Lowman, a nurse from St. Joseph’s COVID-19 unit, was selected by lot to be the first of a group of five hospital workers who volunteered to take the Pfizer vaccine. He was followed by four others, including one of the 1,300 St. Joseph’s staff physicians, and several nurses from different units of the facility. The vaccines had been delivered to St. Joseph just hours before. Each of the five individuals will receive a second dose in the coming weeks.

St. Joseph Hospital nurse Michael Lowman receives the first COVID-19 vaccine injection given in Orange County on Dec. 16.

The vaccinations were broadcast live by the Orange County Health Care Agency during a press conference hosted by St. Joseph, a part of the Providence Health system that also owns and operates St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton as well as four other hospitals in Orange County. St. Joseph Chief Executive Jeremy Zoch pointed out during the press conference that a Providence hospital in Washington state, where the company is based, treated the first known case of COVID-19 in the country earlier this year. Zoch spoke of St. Joseph workers taking extra shifts as numbers of COVID-19 patients dramatically increased in recent weeks.

The Pfizer vaccine is the first to be allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Twenty-five thousand more doses will be delivered to OC next week, all of these the first of two recommended doses, to be followed in two weeks by 25,000 additional doses for the same recipients. St. Joseph’s Jeremy Zoch said the hospital had received a sufficient number of doses to vaccinate every one of facility’s “bedside” workers. Dr. Paul Sheikewitz, one of the five to receive the vaccine this morning, said  the Orange hospital had done a “wonderful” job of expanding their capacity, but that they were probably at their limit now. He thought it “remarkable” that so few workers had contracted the virus. St. Joseph has treated thousands of patients since the pandemic began.

A second shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, consisting of 17,000 doses, is expected next week. Thirty-two thousand doses of another vaccine, developed by Moderna, are scheduled to arrive next week, as well. The County’s estimated 200,000 health care workers and 12,000 first responders will be some of the first to receive the vaccines, but there are not yet enough doses to go around. Health Care Agency and County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau indicated that he didn’t expect members of the general public to receive the vaccine until late February or early March, 2021. Dr. Chau called the first vaccine shots an historical moment in the County’s history, characterizing it as, “The beginning of the end of COVID-19.”

The first doses for St. Jude personnel were said to be “on the way” this morning, where at least one doctor was later said to have been administered the vaccine.

Fourth District Supervisor Doug Chaffee (Fullerton) was on hand to help introduce the proceedings. Supervisor Chaffee co-chairs the County’s Ad-Hoc Testing Committee, which has also been tasked with overseeing distribution of the new vaccines. Ten hospitals in Orange County have been approved to receive vaccine shipments after having submitted plans to the state of California that include the number of health care workers for each respective facility. Hospitals who have not had plans approved yet will have the vaccine administered through the OC Health Care Agency. Chaffee said that doses of the vaccines made available to St. Jude in Fullerton would be distributed through the Providence system.

According to Chaffee, St. Jude is currently operating at 105% capacity. Half of St. Jude’s patients are now being treated for COVID-19, and virtually all of their ICU beds are in use. The County’s COVID-19 Dashboard site shows a 9.5% (unadjusted) number of adult Intensive Care Beds (ICUs) available at the present time—down from 10.4% just the day before, although hospitals have been expanding ICU capacity by dedicating ordinarily non-ICU rooms for that purpose. Hospital administrators are careful to point out, however, that ICU availability is predicated not just on physical space, but on qualified staff to treat patients.

To that end, St. Jude is one of three hospitals in the County to request the Health Care Agency’s assistance in the form of Mobile Field Hospitals (MFHs). According to the agency, MFHs “are housed in large, semi-type trailers and contain heavy duty canvas tents with hard flooring and temperature-controlled units equipped with running water, toilets and showers, generators, and lighting, as well as air purifiers.” They can be arranged in different configurations. St. Jude requested 25 beds, but has not provided details about where they will be located, how the units will be configured on the hospital grounds, or for what purpose they were requested. The units can be utilized for expanded emergency and surge capacity, specialty care, vaccinations, and other purposes. A St. Jude spokesperson did say that the units are not expected to be set up until next week.

In a press release from OC HCA, county residents were encouraged to:

•Wear a mask around anyone you don’t live with.

•Do not gather with other households.

•It is safest to celebrate the holidays with the people who already live with you.

•Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer.

•Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

•Stay home if you are sick and call your primary care provider or urgent care.

•Make certain you don’t run out of any routine, prescription medication by staying in touch with your primary care provider.

Dr. Chau implored residents “not to gather with other households and limit upcoming holiday celebrations to those you live with” in order to help slow down the unprecedented surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths the County is experiencing.