Nurse Who Got First COVID Shot in the U.S. Pushes for Greater Uptake

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December 14 marks exactly a year since Sandra Lindsay, RN, DHSc, director of nursing for critical care at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York, became the first person in the U.S. to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Since rolling up her sleeve, Lindsay has helmed the New York City Heroes Parade, accepted an award from President Joe Biden at the White House, gifted her scrubs to the Smithsonian Institute, and received a doctorate in health sciences. But some of Lindsay’s most powerful work may be her ongoing efforts to promote vaccination.

As the U.S. and the world see an uptick in COVID-19 cases, and the new Omicron variant surges, Lindsay stressed that advocacy and reaching more of the unvaccinated may be more critical now than ever.

“I know that we have some work to do, but we have made tremendous progress. … I just hope that folks who are on the fence [about vaccination] are seeing that the virus is not going away without action,” Lindsay told MedPage Today.

People in the U.S. are fortunate to have three COVID-19 vaccines that are FDA authorized as safe and effective, and to be able to readily find a place to get vaccinated, she said.

“The pandemic affects us globally, and so it is going to take a global response to get out of it,” she said. “COVID is still happening. We are still seeing patients come in very sick with COVID. They don’t have to go through it.”

Public health experts continue to say that getting more shots into arms is the best tool to fight — and one day end — the pandemic. Lindsay said she agrees with that belief, and her bravery and commitment at the very beginning of the rollout has placed her in a unique position to share that message — and bring others on board.

When Lindsay first entered a conference room last December, she had no idea she would be the first person to be vaccinated. She said that she had volunteered to receive the shot to protect herself, her loved ones, and her community as well as to set an example for her staff: “And looking back, I’m incredibly proud that I did.”

Lindsay said that she felt hopeful on the day of her first dose, and that even with COVID-19 cases on the rise in parts of the country, she still feels hopeful.

She said she believes there are many people who have not been vaccinated yet and are still reachable. When engaging in vaccination conversations, Lindsay said it is essential to ask people what is driving their decision. For instance, some people continue to have a genuine fear about the vaccine, she said, and in those cases, she provides them with accurate information.

For members of the Black community, distrust in the medical field as a result of historical events and factors may be keeping individuals from receiving the vaccine. In those instances, there may be conversations about healing and trusting again; the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color; and the vaccine being offered to everyone.

“I can make an appeal to the public on behalf of all healthcare workers,” Lindsay said. “We love our fellow citizens. We do not want to see you in a hospital when there are options.”

Now is a good time to get the first dose or doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and now is also a good time to get a booster, she stressed.

Currently, many hospitalized patients are younger and sicker than before, and they require a lot of resources, she said. Many of those patients are not making it, and Lindsay noted that it’s traumatic for her and her colleagues to see.

“We get scared around holidays when we know people are going to gather, and we hope that people are wearing their masks and are vaccinated,” Lindsay said. “People are on edge and praying that we don’t have to go through this again.”

Colleagues have come to her, confessing that they do not know if they can make it — mentally or physically — through another COVID-19 surge.

“As long as this is happening, you can’t heal,” Lindsay said, but she remains hopeful that continued advocacy for vaccination will help turn the tide.

Lindsay expressed many hopes for when she reaches the 2-year mark for her inaugural vaccination: That everyone will speak of COVID-19 in the past tense; will be able to take their masks off; and gather with families and friends without fear. That healthcare workers “will be on our healing journey.” That the economy improves. That people will make new memories and look back fondly on old ones.

Vaccination will help to do all of that, she said.

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    Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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