BALTIMORE — For nurse Shelley Smialkowski, a simple text message may have never brought such joy and relief.
Working in the Emergency Department at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland, just north of Baltimore, Smialkowski was among the first people in the country to receive the new vaccine for COVID-19.
“Last night, I got a text message that there were 10 people receiving the vaccine. And I was one of them. I was excited, grateful, humbled,” Smialkowski said Dec. 16. “I think it contributes to the success of keeping my family safe, my co-workers safe, my friends. I just feel like it’s just a start. It’s a start to get us back to the new normal.”
Smialkowski, like most health experts, stressed this vaccine and others in the pipeline aren’t going to end the coronavirus pandemic overnight. She will receive a second dose of the vaccine in 21 days.
And in the Emergency Department, little will change. Staff will still be clad in masks and other protective equipment. Round-the-clock hand-washing and other safety measures won’t let up.
The vaccines will just become another tool in the fight against the deadly disease, which has killed more than 300,000 Americans. But it’s a tool with much symbolic value.
“It gives you hope. It gives you hope,” Smialkowski, a parishioner of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, told the Catholic Review, the archdiocesan news outlet.
The vaccine made by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech was approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Dec. 11. The move allows for the vaccination of front-line medical workers, such as Smialkowski, and people who live in long-term care facilities and are especially prone to infection.
A second vaccine made by another U.S. company, Moderna, also may be available for emergency use in the coming weeks. FDA emergency-use approval for it was expected around Dec. 18.
The first rollout of vaccines was expected to take until the end of the month. The Maryland Department of Health expected long-term care facilities to start receiving their doses around Dec. 24.
Smialkowski said she did not hesitate when offered the chance to be one of the first to receive the vaccine, saying she was very confident in the scientific trials that led up to its release.
A veteran nurse, Smialkowski said the pandemic has been a challenging experience. Because many cases are asymptomatic, she has seen patients come to the Emergency Department for other ailments only to discover they had COVID-19.
“I had a 28-year-old gentleman who came in with a kidney stone and he was in severe pain,” she said. “We were going to send him to the operating room, but we have to do a (COVID) test before. And it came back positive.”
She said a chest X-ray revealed lung damage in the man.
“It found what we call ground glass in his lungs,” Smialkowski said.
Months wearing protective gear also has affected her work.
“You know, it is a little frustrating because I don’t feel like I can be as close with the patient,” she said. “You don’t really see my face. I can’t see their lips, and they can’t see me speaking.”
The surge of positive vaccine news has caused increased optimism among Americans who are in the midst of a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But Smialkowski cautioned Marylanders not to let their guard down.
“I think it’s a start,” she said. “Definitely a positive start. But I think that we still need to be very vigilant with our masking and still stay very, very safe until (health officials) say it’s OK.”
Swift is social media editor for the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.