‘Light at the end of the tunnel’: COVID-19 vaccine arrives in DeKalb, Sandwich

DeKALB – At 7:15 a.m. Tuesday, two weeks after the first vaccine was administered in Illinois, Dr. Amit Bhate took the first step towards COVID-19 immunity by receiving the first of two doses of the Moderna NIAID vaccine.

Bhate is the medical director of radiation oncology at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb.

Bhate said that he made the decision to receive the vaccine over the Christmas holiday after discussing it with his wife, who is a physician at Delnor Hospital. The couple have two children, ages 11 and 13, and both sets of their parents are in their 70s. His wife will also receive the vaccine when it is available and offered.

“I took the vaccine this morning to protect my patients and to protect myself,” Bhate said. “The disease itself is worse than any potential side effects, and I wanted to be protected.”

On Tuesday, Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital received 800 doses of the vaccine, with 100 of the doses sent to Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Sandwich. All 800 doses -- which were delivered straight to the hospital, not the health department -- are anticipated to be distributed Tuesday and Wednesday. Kishwaukee Hospital has about 1,200 staff members. Many of the hospitals’ frontline staff went to Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva to receive the vaccine last week.

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is given as a shot in the muscle of the upper arm and requires two shots, 21 days apart. Those who received their first dose Tuesday will get their second and final dose Jan. 26, with the goal to have all staff in the Northwestern Medicine system who want to get the vaccine complete their double doses by the end of February.

Northwestern Medicine is not requiring their staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and took a tiered approach to vaccinating staff, starting with those working directly with COVID-19 patients and onward, said Christopher King, director of media relations for Northwestern Medicine.

Bhate receives an influenza vaccine every year and compared receiving the COVID-19 vaccine to the flu shot.

“I only felt the mildest of soreness, just like it feels when you get a shot,” Bhate said. “I actually think it was easier than getting the flu shot.”

Bhate said that some of his patients, coworkers and friends have had COVID-19.

“One close physician friend of mine had it a few months ago and is still trying to recover,” he said. “They still have weakness and breathing issues. A lung cancer patient was turning the corner for the better when they contracted COVID. They died within four days. It was devastating. Some patients got it and said it felt like a mild cold and recovered well from it. Others developed COVID pneumonia and surgeries had to be delayed until they recovered from it.”

Emily O’Daniell, a nurse at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, was skeptical at first about the vaccine.

“I was afraid of the unknown, but I also worried about bringing the coronavirus home to my husband and family,” she said. “A relative was positive in May and was asymptomatic the whole time. I didn’t want to pick it up from work and infect others without realizing it.”

O’Daniell received the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday, and she said she walked out of the doors with a huge smile on her face.

“This year has been a struggle,” she said. “I completed nursing school, started my job at the hospital and got married. I’m happy that by receiving the vaccine, I can protect the community, patients, my family and myself from the virus.”

Bhate compared differing COVID-19 symptoms to flipping a coin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 symptoms include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea.

“Your symptoms could be that of a mild cold, you could require a respirator or you could die,” he said. “You may be lucky and only have mild symptoms, or you could have serious, life-threatening symptoms. There’s no way to predict how ill you will become. However, the virus has more deleterious effects than the vaccine.”

The CDC lists the most common side effects of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as pain, swelling and redness in the arm where the shot was received and chills, tiredness and headache.

Bhate said that after receiving the first dose of the vaccine, he recommends the vaccine for anyone who is eligible to receive it.

The vaccine is recommended for people ages 18 and older. People who have had a severe allergic reaction to any of the vaccines ingredients are not recommended to receive the vaccine. A full list of the Moderna vaccine ingredients can be found on the Food and Drug Administration’s website, which includes a vaccine fact sheet. The vaccine does not include eggs, preservatives or latex.

The FDA’s vaccine fact sheet mentions that there is a chance that the vaccine can cause a severe allergic reaction, which would usually occur a few minutes to one hour after getting a dose of the vaccine. Signs of a severe allergic reaction can include difficulty breathing, face and throat swelling, a fast heartbeat, a bad rash all over your body, dizziness and weakness.

“Do your research about the vaccines that are out there and if you have questions, discuss them with your primary care doctor,” Bhate said. “But for me, the decision to receive the vaccine was easy. The only way to end this pandemic is if enough people get vaccinated and have immunity against COVID-19. … There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel, and the vaccine is it. The more people that get the vaccine, the sooner we can get back to some normalcy.”

Jay Anderson, president of Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee and Valley West hospitals, said Tuesday’s vaccine rollout gives healthcare providers some much-needed armor as they continue to take care of COVID-19 patients.

“This is such a historic day,” Anderson said. “The fact that the last 10 to 11 months we’ve been living a pandemic as a unified group across the world to now be at this moment where we can start to give a vaccine which gives so many of the caregivers that light at the end of the tunnel.”

Anderson described sitting socially-distanced at lunch in the hospital yesterday and seeing how worn down ICU healthcare workers were.

“It’s uncommon these days for them not to have their mask on,” Anderson said. “But it was lunch time. And I saw one who had a Band-Aid across her nose because her N95 just consistently digs into her face. I saw the creases that are embedded in their faces, some working 12 hour shifts, from wearing N95 masks. And as we talked about the vaccine, just seeing the hope in their eyes that this is maybe getting to the other side of this pandemic was very emotional for all of us, but something I think we’re very proud to be a part of.”

With the vaccine’s arrival locally now, Anderson said it’s important to mark this moment.

“It’s a really really momentous day,” he said. “It’s an emotional day, but one that’s incredibly encouraging to hopefully not just the healthcare community but to the DeKalb community and the world as a whole.”

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.