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COVID-19 vaccine lightens pandemic's gloom for St. Cloud VA's frontline workers

Nora G. Hertel
St. Cloud Times

Editor's note: This article is exclusive to subscribers of the St. Cloud Times. Thank you for your continued support of local journalism.

ST. CLOUD — The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System this week is a "sigh of relief," said Ismael Gomes, a nursing assistant in a unit of the VA's Community Living Center. 

The St. Cloud VA vaccinated around 140 residents and health care workers on Tuesday, the same day the facility received its first shipment of the vaccines. 

The vaccines are a welcome light in the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gomes said. 

Frontline workers have had to work with new infection controls, from health screenings and personal protective equipment to visitor limitations. And they've had to cope with the loss of patients. 

Nursing Assistant Ismael Gomes takes about the impact COVID-19 has had on the Community Living Center population Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System. Gomes said nines of the 20 patients in the unit he works in have died of COVID-19.

Gomes said his unit in the VA's nursing home lost nine of its 20 residents to COVID-19. There are seven units in the Community Living Center.

"I believe that the vaccine will spread the light around and take the darkness away," Gomes said. "And we can be done with the deaths that we have faced. So many. And it's been a very hard experience.

RELATED: St. Cloud VA doles out first of 1,300 Moderna vaccines

A nurse holds a vial after administering the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in the Community Living Center at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System.

"When you take care of them, I think they become a part of you. You almost fall in love with them. And so that is when veterans have died, that has left an impact on us, a vacuum within us. And I hope soon we will be overcoming that," Gomes said.

Distributing the vaccine at the St. Cloud VA is critical for the return of "a more normal state," said Dr. Christopher Churchill, director of Rehabilitation and Extended Care, during a news conference with Gomes and other VA staff after the first vaccines were administered Tuesday.

"We know how important our residents are to their families, how the pandemic has disrupted many people's lives," Churchill said. "We share the families' feelings of frustration and anger due to illness or loss of loved ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic." 

RELATED: First COVID-19 vaccines administered to front-line St. Cloud Hospital staff

Director of Rehabiltation and Extended Care Christopher Churchill speaks about the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine in the Community Living Center Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System.

The St. Cloud VA's long-term care facility has been through substantial challenges in the pandemic, Churchill said. "But we've been through it together."

Nurse Practitioner Kay Iken looks forward to families visiting residents again, and she is hopeful for herd immunity in the future. 

"It's great to be able to actually see that light and know that the end (of the pandemic) will be coming," Iken said. "We still have that tunnel to get through, but at least we have that light."

RELATED: State health officials hopeful to start next phase of COVID-19 vaccines by February

Residents and staff at the St. Cloud VA Community Living Center were among the first in the state to receive doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine.

Jan Neumann, chief nurse for Rehabilitation and Extended Care, cautioned that the launch of vaccinations doesn't mean the St. Cloud VA will open up for Christmas or even at the end of January. 

The vaccine takes a week or so to take effect and patients need a booster after 28 days to increase efficacy to 94%. 

"This is just day one. It's a great day. Trust me it's a great day," Neumann said. "It's the start of the end, not the end of the end."

The St. Cloud VA has 1,300 doses to distribute in its first round of vaccinations.

The 136 residents of the Community Living Center have priority, along with many of the VA's 1,800-plus employees. 

Gomes plans to get the vaccine, he said. "I think we've got to lead by example."

Nora Hertel is the government watchdog reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-255-8746 or nhertel@stcloudtimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @nghertel.