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COVID-19 vaccinations begin for Tucson healthcare workers

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Dr. Melissa Zukowski, the director of the emergency department at Banner's Tucson campus, holds her daughter Sophia Smallwood's hand as she gets one of the first vaccines for COVID-19 in Pima County at Banner Health University Medical Center North. - Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

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A wince, a few tears, and a moment of relief: Medical staffers at Banner University Medical Center received the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine in Pima County on Thursday morning.

"I'm really excited," said the first nurse to be vaccinated against coronavirus here. "This is what gets us back to normal."

Under the parking garage at Banner's North campus, medical staff set up a drive-thru vaccine clinic, and invited reporters to observe the first vaccinations as the county rolls out its plan to inoculate residents against the novel coronavirus, which has infected at least 435,000 Arizonans and killed 7,677 since March. Even as the first needles poked patients with the vaccine in the state, the rate of infections here has spiked, with records for new confirmed cases and deaths from the disease setting records multiple times over the past several weeks.

Among the first people to be inoculated will be frontline healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients, emergency medical personnel, and people living and working in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, Pima County officials said. 

The county said it will receive more than 50,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the first distribution, including 10,000 this week, followed by about 17,000 more next week. But it will take about 134,000 doses to cover those in the first group here.

Each person will receive two doses, three weeks apart. 

Following medical personnel who work with coronavirus patients, the county will focus on other medical staff, adults in other congregate settings, law enforcement officers, teachers, and essential service and critical industry workers. This phase will be followed adults older than 65, and anyone with a high-risk medical condition. 

The county has said that it will take until spring 2021 for drug manufacturers to produce enough doses of the vaccines to inoculate everyone in the county, 

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Iris Delfakis, a registered oncology nurse navigator, for Banner Health University Medical Center was selected to be the first person to receive a vaccine here. As nearly a dozen nurses, doctors, and staff crowded around her, Cristina Torres, a registered nurse and associate director of Banner's OBGYN program, gave her the injection. 

After getting the shot, the crowd clapped for a moment. Then, Delfakis was shuttled over to the observation area to make sure she didn't have an adverse reaction to the vaccine. 

"It didn't feel like much," Delfakis said. "You know usually, a shot like a flu shot burns or feels cool, but this didn't feel like anything" 

"Emotionally, I'm really excited," she said. "This is what gets us back to normal. And, it will keep us from getting overwhelmed, though we nearly are now. People are getting sick, doctors and nurses are getting sick," she said. "I'm so excited; I was so ready for this. We needed this." 

After 15 minutes of observation, Delfakis was back in the fray, helping to ready the next doses and patients. 

Dr. Melissa Zukowski, the director of the emergency department at Banner's Tucson campus, held her daughter Sophia Smallwood's hand tightly as she got her shot. And, afterwards she was emotional. "This is a big day of hope and I think we're all trying to back to our normal lives."

Zukowski said she brought her daughter along "just to witness it" because "for all of us, it's been a lot of work and hours away from our own families. This day has been a long time coming," she said. 

News that the vaccine is here also comes with tough news about the state's ability to control COVID-19. Arizona's death toll from coronavirus cases rose by 147 deaths reported Thursday morning.

While only about 7 percent of the current 31,851 cases are currently hospitalized, only 140 hospital beds are available in the state, and COVID-19 patients are 51 percent of those using adult intensive care beds in Arizona. And, this is weeks after the highest spike in COVID-19 cases in the state. On Nov. 30, officials reported 7,823 cases in a single day, and after a short lapse, cases again spiked on Dec. 7 to 7,644. 

In Pima County, Dec. 10 was the single worst day of cases, and officials reported 1,238 cases.

Arizona has been included in the "red zone" of the worst states for the COVID-19 outbreak for weeks, according to closely held internal reports by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which has repeatedly urged governors, including Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey, to enact more stringent measures to contain the pandemic.

Since Sept. 9, the R0 ("R-naught") rate for cases of COVID-19, or the rate at which one person infects at least one other, has remained above 1 in the state, and on Dec. 14, the rate was 1.15. This means that the virus is continuing to spread in the state, and that cases will continue to rise through winter. 

Asked if the virus was real, a reference to conspiracist rumors that this virus is a hoax or somehow magnified, Zukowski said: "This is absolutely real, every day we are working hours and hours and hours to treat people with this virus—I wish it wasn't real too, but it's been here since March and it's been long hours  and lots of hours trying to keep people safe." 

"Even though the mask is here, we still need to mask up and keep our distancing. Truly, I worked in the emergency department and we said everyday, we can't do this alone, and we really need our community to step up and help us," Zukowski said. 

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