Nursing students and medical assistants on Tuesday administered the first doses of the much-anticipated coronavirus vaccine to San Antonio’s frontline health care workers. 

As one of the first sites in Texas to receive a shipment of the Pfizer-developed vaccine, UT Health San Antonio began administering the first of two required doses to doctors, nurses, and others. Monday marked the arrival of 6,000 doses. 

“This is our first intentional fight back against this pandemic,” said Dr. William Henrich, president of UT Health San Antonio. “I feel like this is a terrific moment for science, and a terrific moment for our country, to take a swing and put this pandemic in the rear-view mirror.”

Henrich, who said he plans to get the shot on Thursday, called it a historic moment and compared the vaccination effort to the 1950s-era program to end polio. More than 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, with 800 currently hospitalized in Bexar County.

“We have to do this and that’s why this moment is so incredibly exciting for San Antonio, yes, for Texas, yes, but for our country and for the world,” he said. “I think everybody around the world had the same reaction to it, the same ebullient reaction of being happy.”

Receiving one of the first doses of the vaccine felt like a sigh of relief to medical student Neil Gupta. “But it’s really just the beginning of a solution,” he said. “I’m excited to be in the first phase. I know a lot of my grandparents are in line, too, and I’m looking forward to them getting this as soon as possible. I’m just glad there is a solution on the horizon.” 

The vaccine plan also delivered a learning opportunity for UT Health students. Under the watch of nursing faculty members and a slew of media members, Daniella Martinez administered her first-ever vaccine as a UT Health nursing student – the one for COVID-19. 

Nursing student Kendra Mack gave the first shot given at the institution, a dose of the coronavirus vaccine to Adelita Cantu, associate professor of nursing at UT Health. 

“I’m still catching my breath,” Mack said afterward. “I’ve given plenty of vaccines. I’ve never given one on television – the most-watched vaccine in history, I would say. I’m so thrilled to be part of it.”

A public health nurse, Cantu said getting vaccinated would allow her to continue serving seniors and youth in need, many who live on the city’s West Side where she grew up. When asked on Monday to be the first in San Antonio to roll up her sleeve, Cantu readily agreed. The historic moment also was not lost on her. 

“It’s inspiring,” she said. “It gives me a sense of relief that we have it, and then, pride that I can play a part in the larger picture, because it is about the larger picture, and that I can … make a difference in this one.

“This is the ray of hope.”

Adelita Cantu, associate professor of nursing at UT Health, received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the medical school. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Also one of the first to be vaccinated was infectious disease specialist Dr. Jason Bowling, who served on a UT Health vaccine task force that reviewed the safety of the vaccine, how it would be administered, and what side effects could be expected. 

“Understandably, people are always concerned, particularly when there are new things [and] this is a new vaccine,” Bowling said. “It’s a new vaccine technology. So we were looking closely at the data … and fortunately it looks like a very safe vaccine.”

Calling the vaccine another tool in a tool belt of personal protective equipment to help with infection control, Bowling said he was excited to get the shot, adding that the injection didn’t hurt.

“We’re doing something proactive to protect people, which is great,” Bowling said. “There’s been a lot of work on the science and development of this vaccine, but it’s really kind of a monumental step towards getting out of this COVID pandemic.”

A UT Health San Antonio spokeswoman said the vaccinations would continue according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tiered allocation structure that starts with frontline health care workers and essential workers. Tuesday’s clinic was set to vaccinate a total of 100 people, followed by another 1,000 each day after.

Bowling agreed with that approach. “We’re still seeing the increasing cases and so we need people to take care of them, and if we lose health care workers, we can quickly lose out on the ability to provide care to people that have COVID.”

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Jason Bowling receives the COVID-19 vaccination at UT Health San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The other Texas sites receiving the vaccine Monday were the Methodist Health System in Dallas, Dell Medical School in Austin, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Other hospital systems began receiving shipments on Tuesday, including the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital, which plans to begin vaccinating frontline health care providers within the week.

“The fact that we were at the front of the line is a sign of understanding the need here and wanting to get launched,” Henrich said. “It was important for this organization to be able to serve our whole community.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.