Baptist Health System joined other medical facilities in San Antonio and across the nation last week in a monumental effort to begin dispensing the COVID-19 vaccine to those on the front lines of the pandemic. 

“The vaccine administration has been met with relief and joy and enthusiasm,” said Dr. Lynnette Watkins, the chief medical officer for Baptist Health System. “Literally, there are celebrations when colleagues get vaccinations because it means they’re on the path to protecting themselves and their loved ones.”

In the first three days of administering the vaccine, the hospital system inoculated 1,400 of its 10,000 employees, from administration and environmental staff to doctors, nurses, and technicians, who work in six facilities in San Antonio and New Braunfels. 

Dr. Chris Hammet, a radiologist with South Texas Radiology Imaging Centers, bared his arm for the vaccine on Monday. He said it was nothing compared to some of the vaccinations against deadly viruses, such as yellow fever, he received while serving in the military. 

Dr. Chris Hammet is vaccinated in the upper left shoulder by trauma nurse Ruben Saenz. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But Hammet, who is 60 years old, has had an aortic valve replacement and previous lung disease. “So I’m at high risk,” he said. And so are the patients who need the diagnostic procedures he performs.

Despite being vaccinated, Hammet canceled a scheduled flight home to see his elderly mother in South Carolina for the holidays, knowing it can take up to seven days to build immunity after getting the shot. He also knows he could already have the virus and not know before spreading it to others.  

“I think it’s hard for a lot of people [to understand],” he said. “They say, ‘Nobody around me was sick.’ Well, 30 to 40 percent of people are never getting sick. Once they do get sick, for three or four days, they’re shedding the virus like crazy before they feel bad.”

After the shot, Hammet waited with less than a dozen others in a post-vaccination observation area where the Carpenters’ holiday ballad, “I wish I were with you,” and other Christmas favorites played over the speakers. Occupational health nurse Melissa Wyatt watched over them all. “Vaccines are my jam,” she said.

Nurse Ruben Saenz, trauma program manager at Baptist Health System, had been giving shots at the hospital since Thursday. “They all say it’s the best day of 2020,” he said, with many on the first days taking selfies during the vaccination. 

But for many receiving the vaccine in recent days, it was a short respite from the battle hospital workers have been waging for almost 10 months. While the atmosphere was subdued and at times joyous in the shot clinic, the mood was likely different in other parts of the hospital where COVID-19 patients were being treated. 

“This has been a long, arduous journey and it’s not over yet,” Watkins said. “This is really a war that we are all collectively waging.”

Dr. Lynnette Watkinsm, chief medical officer for Baptist Health System.
Dr. Lynnette Watkins, chief medical officer for Baptist Health System. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In the emergency department, it’s controlled chaos, she said, with both coronavirus-positive patients and other injured and sick people walking in or being brought by emergency medical services. 

Watkins said those with COVID-19 symptoms are in varying stages of the illness, from those who need supplemental oxygen and observation to some who are acutely ill and need to be on a ventilator. 

Metro Health data reported on Sunday showed 866 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized in San Antonio, 273 were in intensive care units (ICU), and 145 were on ventilators.

The number of patients who are admitted to Baptist hospitals across the city varies from one day to the next. “But just like the rest of the community, we are seeing a surge, both in our patients who are presenting to the floor as well as those to the ICU,” Watkins said. “And that is, unfortunately, part of the Thanksgiving holiday surge that we were fearful would come and has come.”

The hospital was prepared for that surge by focusing on the three Ps – personnel, personal protective equipment, and plant (or space) – and making sure there would be enough of each. The expanding ability and capacity to do testing has also helped with the response, Watkins said. 

“I think the advantage that we have now, versus in July, is that we’ve been through it, we’ve planned for it, we’ve actually done it, and while our team is tired, we’re able to do it again,” she said. 

The doctors and nurses who work in the ICU tell Watkins they are tired and the patients are very sick. It’s an unwelcome deja vu that makes them wish people would take precautions more seriously – wear face masks, wash hands, and social distance. 

“It’s the beginning of the journey still – it’s not the end – and we still need to have most of the population receive both of the vaccinations in order to move the needle on this virus spread. This is something that is real, and it’s something where if we wear the mask, we can slow the spread.”

It is very real in health care settings where, as of Dec. 3, there have been more than 249,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among health care workers in the United States, leading to at least 866 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of the coronavirus cases among Baptist hospital workers, most infections were found to be from exposure through close contact with people not in their household, Watkins said. Medical offices outside the hospital also have significant exposures and infections. 

Hammet has seen several employees in his radiology practice fall ill with the virus. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how many health care workers have had it for two weeks and are now back in work,” he said. 

Occupational nurse Diana Erdman vaccinates Northeast Baptist nurse Jessie Baza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But because nearly every employee in the hospital has some role in caring for COVID-19 patients, or their family members, approval of first the Pfizer vaccine and then one from Moderna was a welcome “shot in the arm,” she said, “particularly those on the frontline who have been dealing with this where there is an element of fatigue.”

In San Antonio, one in five residents work in health care, and thousands in the various hospital systems have been vaccinated in recent days. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that it takes more than 75 percent of a population to reach critical mass in a community. “When most of the people are protected, the virus has a hard time latching on,” he said. 

“We are not there yet,” Watkins said. “But we feel that for the folks that are at the tip of the spear, so to speak, when it comes to taking care of patients with COVID-19, [it’s important] that they have the first opportunity to get the vaccine.”

With two vaccines now authorized for use and distribution in the United States, more providers are receiving supplies to inoculate residents against the virus. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services released a list that included 81 facilities in Bexar County that will receive a distribution of the Moderna vaccine this week. Among them are UT Health clinics and other urgent care clinics, Southwest General Hospital, the South Texas Asthma and Allergy Medical Professionals, and dozens of H-E-B pharmacies.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.