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Covid-19 vaccine is a source of hope for health care workers. But it comes too late for hundreds of them

Andrew Cuomo

Weeks after Dr. Carlos Araujo Preza was treated for Covid-19 in the same Houston-area hospital where he cared for patients during the pandemic, a coworker remembered him as she received the new vaccine that could have saved his life.

“A nurse practitioner wrote on a little piece of paper that she got the vaccine for my dad,” said his daughter, Andrea Araujo.

“She wrote, ‘For my boss and my friend who died weeks before getting the vaccine. #ForDrAraujo.’ It was sad but also really nice.”

Araujo Preza was 51 when he died on November 30 in the same intensive care unit where he served as critical care medical director at HCA Houston Healthcare in Tomball, Texas.

More than 240,000 health care workers have been infected with coronavirus and nearly 900 have died, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For their families — and those of the more than 300,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19 — the long-awaited vaccine is a source of hope in a year of despair. But it comes too late.

A ‘bittersweet’ moment

Hundreds of people across the country, mostly front line health care workers, received their first dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine during a week that saw nearly 20,000 Americans die from the virus. A second Covid-19 vaccine will soon ship out, with more than 237,000 people projected to die in the winter months.

Last Monday, as the first doses of the vaccine were delivered to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, the national death toll from virus surpassed 300,000.

Health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities are first in line to receive the shots. But it’ll be several months before most Americans can get one.

“I hope this is the first step in helping other people not go through what my family has gone through,” Andrea Araujo said. “I hope we’re headed in the right direction.”

Hope is hard work in a country that has surpassed its own hospitalization record for more than a dozen consecutive days.

Over the weekend, there were more than 114,700 coronavirus patients across the country, according to the COVID Tracking Project. The US reported an average of more than 219,000 new infections every day for the past week. On Friday, yet another record was set: More than 249,700 new infections were reported.

Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor was among the first people in Kentucky to receive the new Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine last Monday. She described the moment as “bittersweet.”

“As I was walking to go get my vaccine, I actually had just heard that my 27th patient died, so it was very emotional,” she said.

‘The burden of fear had been lifted’

Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse in New York, a week ago received the vaccine authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration. She is believed to be the first person in the country vaccinated for the coronavirus.

Lindsay, an ICU nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, got the shot from Dr. Michelle Chester, the corporate director of employee health services at Northwell Health.

Lindsay and Chester, both Black, represent two groups — people of color and health care workers — disproportionately affected by the national health crisis. They know that America’s history of racism in medical treatment and research and a lack of trust in the federal government has made some Black Americans and Latinos hesitant to take the vaccine.

“Everyday since March that I entered work has … gotten darker and darker,” Lindsay said Friday night on the CNN Town Hall “The Color of Covid — The Vaccines.”

“I have seen the effects of it. And I don’t want to see you end up in one of our ICU beds or enter our hospitals.”

She added, “I have been saying to my colleagues, in my 26 and a half years of nursing, I have never felt so afraid. After the shot … I applauded. I felt like the burden of fear had been lifted off my shoulders.”

US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams and Vice President Mike Pence both received the vaccine publicly Friday as part of a campaign to encourage public confidence.

“We have to acknowledge that this … mistrust comes from a historical place,” Adams, who is Black, told CNN. “But we also have to explain to people that we put protections in place to make sure this could never happen again.

“When you look at Covid-19, the fact that you are three to five times more likely to end up in a hospital and/or die if you’re African American, Hispanic, or Native American, those are wrongs that are going on right now.”

No reservations about getting the vaccine

Araujo Preza was born in El Salvador and came to the US in 1994 to continue his medical education. He studied at Staten Island University Hospital in New York and Tulane University in New Orleans. In 2001, he moved to the Houston area, where he worked as a pulmonologist for nearly two decades.

In April, during the height of the pandemic’s first wave, he slept in the hospital for nearly a month to be on call, according to his daughter. When he fell ill in October, he downplayed his condition so not to worry his family.

Araujo Preza was admitted to the ICU in early November, and remained there about a week and a half. He had barely been out of the hospital 48 hours before he was readmitted. When his condition worsened he was transferred to Houston Methodist Hospital and later placed on a ventilator. He never returned home.

“For my whole life he always worked really hard and was very dedicated to his patients and his practice,” Andrea Araujo said. “And more this year than ever before he exemplified that.”

She has no reservations about receiving the vaccine, she said.

“I’m not a health professional but I know that my dad wanted to get the vaccine,” Araujo said. “And so that gives me confidence. Whenever I have the opportunity to get it, I will.”

Jhulan Banago said he feels no bitterness that his mother never got the vaccine.

Celia Yap-Banago — who was born in the Philippines — died in April at the age of 69, just days before celebrating her 40-year anniversary as a nurse at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

“There’s a great opportunity in front of us,” the 29-year-old engineer said. “We can’t change what’s already happened and, moving forward, I definitely want health care workers with 29-year-old sons to not have to have the interview we’re doing now.”

Since her death, Yap-Banago’s family always fixes a small plate for her at dinner. They often turn the TV to her favorite station — The Hallmark Channel, which she would watch as she drifted off to sleep.

“Mom would be excited and relieved for sure, to know that there is a vaccine developed to help us, to help front line workers fight this terrible enemy,” Banago said.

Article Topic Follows: US & World

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