"I think it's incredibly exciting," says Kent County medical director Dr. Nirali Bora. "There's so much hope now."
After nearly a year of waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Bora foresees a time soon when social lives can become normal, families can reunite and children can feel safe at school. It's a good feeling and it's re-energizing all of humanity on her side.
Front-line health care workers, supporting staff and others joining the fight to eradicate COVID-19 were, just a few months ago, in the grips of anxiety and darkness. Cases were on the rise, a vaccine supply fell far short of demand and, after a year of isolation precautions, hope was all many had left.
Welcome to 2021.
Now armed with three versions of the COVID-19 vaccine, those involved in the vaccination effort have an entirely new outlook on what's to come.
"The mood around here has changed, night and day, from a couple of months ago," says Steve Kelso, marketing and communication manager of the Kent County Health Department
(KCHD). "Just having that vaccine on our dock has changed everybody's attitude. For the last eight or nine months, we've basically been getting our butts kicked and we just tell people to wear masks and socially distance and practice those things. We had no real offensive weapon. And now these nurses are acting like they're coming out of the locker room at halftime. They have a football in their hands and we're coming for you 'rona."
Mary Wisinski, supervisor of the KCHD Immunization Program, recalls months of discouragement before the new year.
"It felt like we were on the defensive. There was still death and the cases were still up," she says. "Then around the holidays we asked people to stay home and people didn't, so then you'd see the numbers climb again. It's not like a regular public health response, it just seemed like it was going to continue and continue."
Once the vaccine arrived, the discouragement was lifted.
On Dec. 18, 2020, Wisinski was the first to receive a vaccination in Kent County. It came as more than just a personal relief.
“You could just see it in people's faces all around you," Wisinski says. "People were clapping and cheering and just so excited. It gave us some hope that at some point in the future, we would get back to normalcy. It was a complete 360 emotional turnaround."
Kent County Health Department’s immunization program supervisor, Mary Wisinski, receiving the first shot in Kent County
While Wisinski doesn't work in a clinic every day, she sees smiles and high spirits on each visit.
"We've gotten lots of emails from people thanking us that it's a well-run program and that everyone was so kind. That's a testament to our staff because they're working long hours and some days vaccinating 700 to 800 people," Wisinski says. "It's been a joy to be able to do something positive and to know that we're just building that herd immunity one person at a time."
Vaccinating 700 to 800 people a day is a heavy workload, but the clinics working in Wisinki's immunization program have the process down to about 15 minutes per patient. One of their biggest challenges is reaching the sheer volume of people who need to be called for an appointment.
One of Wisinski's jobs is to work with Dr. Bora on reallocating extra doses of vaccine for community partners. Wisinski and her team work long hours making sure providers get the vaccine and know how to use it correctly. Insight from the West Michigan Vaccine Collaborative
helps make sure the efforts aren't duplicated and that they make the biggest impact.
"I think that has made it an easier process, because if we weren't talking to each other that would be an even bigger problem," Wisinki says. "It really is a West Michigan effort."
Wisinki made a visit to the county clinic that gave her the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine when the 20,000th was being administered. It was a week before the patient's birthday.
The patient told Kelso at the time, "I feel like I've gotten an early birthday present."
"That was cool to hear," Wisinki says.
The patient also said she would tell her neighbors to get vaccinated.
“I listened to the interview she did with Steve and it just brought tears to my eyes,” Wisinksi says. “It was really just so gratifying."
Over the upcoming months, vaccine supplies are going to increase. More vaccines will be distributed to health care partners, doctors’ offices and pharmacies. Wisinki believes this will lead to greater herd immunity too.
The most recent CDC guidance
indicates that fully vaccinated people don't have to wear masks when they're indoors with another vaccinated person.
"I think we're gonna see some less strict guidance as we get further into this program, but it's not going to happen overnight," Wisinki says. "As we increase [vaccination] over the next few months and work really hard during the summer, I hope we're going to see a lot more people vaccinated by early fall."
Joann Hoganson works with schools and migrant populations. Like her Kent County colleagues, she feels a sense of hope in the air that wasn't there just a few months ago.
"It's been an incredibly difficult year for schools. And I am so proud how well Kent County's schools have been able to stay open and educate students, even in the middle of a pandemic when so many other big cities and metropolitan areas closed down," Hoganson says.
With teachers having to leave for extended periods to self-isolate or quarantine, every day was a battle to staff classrooms. It was also difficult to maintain social distancing requirements without overcrowding those classrooms.
Schools have had to find new ways to put layers of protection in place to help students, parents, teachers and school staff feel confident that the risk of spreading COVID-19 was minimized. School administrators have split attendance up into alternating days, asked some students to attend only virtual classes, and have spread classes out into rooms not traditionally used for classrooms so that children have more space to socially distance.
One of the tools almost every school has is a screening device used before children and staff come into the building. It has helped keep children that could potentially infect others out of school until they are cleared from quarantine.
"Now we have new tools, the biggest one being the vaccine," Hoganson says. "I feel very optimistic. The future's bright and I'm hoping that these last three months of school, particularly high school, can be a really good experience for the students."
Hoganson says one of the best things to come out of this experience is a relationship between public health and education.
"That really didn't exist before," she says. "We stayed in our own silos. We did public health and the schools did education. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have worked hand in hand with our local schools to make sure that they are able to do their job. I hope this new relationship continues after the pandemic is over."
Dr. Bora has been working closely with each of the different health care systems in Kent County throughout the pandemic. She has seen the work they have done in making Grand Rapids one of the most efficient vaccination centers in the state and probably the country, through the collaborative development of vaccination clinics in areas where they can make the biggest impact. Years from now, this is one of the things she will remember most clearly.
"Public health in general moves slowly. There's bureaucracy, there's red tape and things take a long time to happen," she says. "But we've seen in a pandemic how we can get moving really quickly and make things happen. This sense of urgency and this ability to just get things done quickly — I'm hoping that this is something that we can carry on as we go forward."
The experience has forged and strengthened many relationships between the county and various community organizations.
"I don't think I ever knew all of our superintendents the way that I do now," Bora says. "I think we recognize that when we really come together, we can come up with solutions that work. I want to keep some of the approaches that we've taken to get information out to individuals and communities for other collaboratives we have, because if we can move this quickly to get things done for this one issue, think about what we can do for food insecurity or maternal child health or substance use disorder. I think there's just so much potential in the new ways that we have decided to work together."
Eventually, we will see the masks come off.
Health care systems and the collaborative efforts in Kent County
and the rest of the state of Michigan will be vaccinating people for months to come. They are also monitoring the progress of several variants of COVID-19, which may respond to vaccines differently. As many are still anxious to receive their first vaccination, Bora and others are still waiting to see if those who are vaccinated will continue to transmit the disease at low levels. Bora says the Kent County Health Department is still concerned with protecting those who have not had a chance to be vaccinated.
People are still worried and want to know when they can get in line," Bora says. "It's a really difficult thing to ethically decide who is next in line and we're following the guidance that we're given but it's hard to say 'No.'"
Bora says she's seen hundreds of emails from Kent County residents requesting priority for various reasons.
"I want to say 'Yes' to everybody," she says. "I don't want to say 'No' but we know that it's still a limited resource. It's really tough."
Hoganson agrees anxiety is running high. But, she cautions, "we could lose the game in the ninth inning if we jump too quickly."
"We are happy that we have so many people vaccinated and [are] getting [more] vaccinated every day," she says. "We need to continue to keep our guard up and not to relax too quickly, because we could then see a setback."
Bora says variants of COVID-19 have led to an increase in hospitalization rates throughout the state, but the vaccine is, so far, effective against those, too.
"Give it two to three months," she says. "I think we can get there."
Full of hope and armed with vaccines in hand, the diligent efforts of our local health care systems and Kent County Health Department will be clearing the way.
Photos courtesy of Kent County Health Department
Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 20 years of experience as a journalist for various newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm.