‘It means everything’: Ascension Borgess, Bronson Healthcare begin COVID-19 vaccinations


KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Ascension Borgess and Bronson Healthcare launched their COVID-19 vaccination programs for health care workers Thursday.

Ascension Borgess, which received 975 doses of the vaccine in its first shipment, gave its first shots at 1 p.m. The first to get it was registered nurse Dawn Fierke, followed by two more nurses, a doctor and a respiratory therapist.

“I have a big grin on my face right now underneath my mask, and I frankly have goosebumps,” said Ascension Borgess President Peter Bergmann, who went on to praise his employees for their care and perseverance throughout the pandemic.

Bronson gave its shots at 3 p.m., with President and CEO Bill Manns calling it a “historic occasion.”

“This is the greatest day ever,” medical assistant Lisa Audette proclaimed excitedly as she got the first shot.

Bronson Healthcare medical assistant Lisa Audette receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot on Dec. 17, 2020.

Later, Audette told reporters that getting vaccinated meant “everything.” She said she has held the hand of dying patients whose family weren’t able to visit them.

“I want to be happy again. I want to smile again,” she said, beginning to cry. “I want people to die with dignity. I don’t want to be in fear of my patients. I want to have a conversation with them again. It means everything. I want to hug my mom again. I want to hug my immunocompromised nephew Josh again.”

She said the shot, which came on the three-year anniversary of her father’s death, felt like a “gift from him.”

She urged people to remain diligent in wearing their masks and social distancing to keep combating the virus as the vaccine is slowly rolled out.

“This is serious stuff,” she said. “I truly feel like people think if it doesn’t affect them, it isn’t happening. But it is happening. I have held the hands of the dying. I have taken care of my friends’ parents. I watched a man who I knew for 23 years die. It’s terrible. So I would say, please just do what’s asked of you. It’s not that hard. We’re not asking that much.”

Health care workers in both hospital systems said they wanted to set an example and let people see what getting the vaccine was like.

“I was very excited. I just wanted to show people there was no fear in this and encourage everybody to get it,” Fierke said.

Sue Ames, a nurse in the Ascension Borgess COVID-19 ICU, said the shot was easy and over quickly.

“I feel like we need some sort of hope right now and this is the hope that we’re offered,” she said.

Health care providers are hailing the arrival of the vaccine, which was developed and approved in record time, as the way the nation will beat back the virus that has killed more than 300,000 Americans, including more than 11,000 in Michigan alone.

“This is the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” Bergmann said. “To be part of this historic time right now where we’re giving the first doses at Ascension Borgess is remarkable.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, which are being manufactured in Portage, rolled out of the plant for the first time Sunday and have been arriving at West Michigan hospitals throughout the week.

On Monday, Spectrum Health became the first hospital system in the state to start vaccinations. Dr. Marc McClelland, a pulmonologist, got the first shot. He told News it was quick and relatively painless, and that he felt fine the day after. Spectrum had vaccinated 400 employees as of Wednesday evening and expected to vaccinate 400 more on Thursday.

Holland Hospital said it will start vaccinations Friday morning.

But distribution is not going entirely smoothly, with federal authorities saying Pfizer has not been as open as they would prefer and Pfizer saying the federal government has not been providing instructions about where to send doses. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed Thursday that the state expected to get fewer doses next week than initially expected: it had thought 84,000 doses will come in; instead, there will be 60,000.

All of the first doses are going to front-line health care workers and those in nursing homes. The vaccine isn’t expected to be available to everyone until May or April.

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