Thoughts of the First Californian to Receive COVID-19 Vaccine

Helen Cordova celebrated two COVID-19 vaccinations in her family this month.

Her mother got a refresher on her 66th birthday and then went to a boisterous family dinner at Chili’s, which was not possible last winter when both indoor and outdoor dining was banned.

A few days later, Cordova’s newly admitted 5-year-old niece received her first dose after being promised a lollipop.

Those syringes – among the more than 62 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine now being given in California – were so easy to get they were practically mundane.

How things have changed since Cordova, a 33-year-old nurse from the San Fernando Valley, got her own Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.

A year ago this month, Cordova became the first person in California outside of a clinical trial to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, making history at a time when the virus was overwhelming hospitals and the first precious doses at the most potent People at risk were restricted: the elderly and frontline health workers.

California Governor Gavin Newsom watches as Helen Cordova receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles on December 14, 2020.

(Associated Press)

“I remember that hope I felt when I got the vaccine because it was probably the darkest time of the pandemic,” said Cordova, who was treating COVID patients in the intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center at the time.

The day the first shots were administered in the United States – December 14, 2020 – marked a hopeful new chapter in the pandemic.

Baseball stadiums and fairgrounds were quickly converted into mass vaccination clinics. Infections and deaths fell for months as the high-potency vaccines became widespread. Business restrictions and mask requirement lifted. Schools open again.

But the anniversary of the vaccination is bittersweet.

This month, the US death toll from coronavirus exceeded 800,000. Cases and hospital stays are increasing again because of the Delta and Omicron variants. Vaccinations, hampered by political divisions and rampant misinformation, have stalled.

Last year “there have been some tremendous successes, not least the fact that these vaccines are widely available in the US,” said epidemiologist Dr. Timothy Brewer from UCLA. “We went from identifying a new pathogen to a vaccine in less than a year. You wouldn’t have heard that five years ago. ”

But “one of the great tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US,” he said, is the politicization of masks and vaccines that have hastened to much preventable disease and death.

In California, 67% of the population is fully vaccinated. Millions of people eligible for the syringe haven’t received a single dose – and they are increasingly hardliners saying they never will.

But it’s important to acknowledge how far things have come, Los Angeles County’s director of public health Barbara Ferrer said in an interview. In LA County alone, more than 16 million doses have been administered, according to the Times vaccine tracker. Ferrer calls this number breathtaking and is the result of a “Herculean effort”.

“We had so much shortage in the beginning; People waited months for their dose, ”she said. “Now you come to a point where you don’t have to wait to get vaccinated.

“I feel like we were very hopeful last December and we are very hopeful this December. We know that despite the threat from Omicron, these vaccines are super powerful … [and] We owe a lot to the courage of these first people. ”

Cordova was given the vaccine in front of the news cameras while Governor Gavin Newsom stood next to her wearing a surgical mask.

At first, she didn’t even want the shot because she feared it would develop too quickly.

“I thought it was too fast. I dont trust it. How do we know what it’s going to do? Others can go on and I’ll watch, ”Cordova recalls.

She changed her mind after speaking to colleagues and reading data from clinical trials of the vaccines. And after thinking about the hell she experienced in the COVID intensive care unit.

In March 2020, Cordova was working at Kaiser while juggling her final semester at UCLA, where she was training to be a nurse.

At the beginning of each shift, they gathered with their colleagues in a conference room and received their patient orders. One day she and a few other nurses were held back when others were leaving. They were told that they would be working in the new COVID unit.

“I just remember being a bit shocked, then just nerves and uneasiness because we didn’t know anything about the virus. Zero, ”she said.

Framed newspaper reports hang on the walls of Helen Cordova's room.

Framed newspaper reports hang on the walls of Helen Cordova’s room from the day she became the first person in California outside of a clinical trial to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Cordova texted her mother and two older brothers. Pray for me, she asked, before being led to the unit, which was locked and manned by guards.

She will never forget her first patient: a middle-aged Latina with a cough who was shocked when Cordova walked head to toe in protective clothing.

The woman relaxed when Cordova started speaking to her in Spanish. The patient had been tested for the coronavirus, but then test kits were new, slow, and scarce. She spent several days in the ward – with another patient on a ventilator in the next room – before learning she was negative.

Cordova, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, took her toll when the COVID unit was filled with Latinos who became infected and died disproportionately from the virus.

“It was heartbreaking because there is so much suspicion about the health system,” she said. “Sometimes there were seven Latinos in a group of eight patient beds.”

Cordova said she was one of only three certified Spanish translators on staff in the intensive care unit. She was called constantly to tell a dying patient to call her family before she was intubated. For the final “I love you” and “I pray for you” she held “some iPads in her hand”.

“I probably got some unprocessed PTSD from it,” she said. “It’s hard to talk about.”

By receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, Cordova wanted to be an example for these patients. And for her family.

Cordova lives with her mother Betty in the Winnetka house where she grew up. She was afraid of infecting them.

Cordova showered for months before leaving the hospital, then back home. She had two rotating pairs of work shoes that she left outside and soaked in bleach after each shift. She stayed a long way from her mother.

Every time her mother sniffed, she panicked. And felt guilty.

“I signed up as a nurse,” she says. “That was my choice. I didn’t register them to be exposed. I’ve seen so many people in the hospital and many who were otherwise healthy and had trouble breathing, and the deck of cards was stacked against my mother in case she got it. ”

In 2001, Betty had extremely high blood pressure and doctors discovered a thoracic aortic aneurysm. In the weeks leading up to the surgery, she was told to take her chest x-rays wherever she went in case they burst and the emergency services needed to know what happened.

Cordova was then a 13-year-old middle school student. When Betty came to pick her up, Cordova worried she’d died.

Betty had surgery, a stroke in the hospital, and more operations after a second aneurysm was found years later. Because of her mother’s health problems, Cordova became a nurse.

On December 13, 2020, Cordova was just finishing a shift when her manager called and asked what she thought of the vaccine. She said she finally made up her mind: she was going to get it.

Helen Cordova is standing next to her mother, who is sitting in a living room.

Helen Cordova with her mother Betty Cordova at home on December 14th in the San Fernando Valley.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“Okay what are you doing tomorrow?” she remembered him asking.

He told her the hospital had received some of the first doses and that she could get one because she had helped open the COVID ward. There could be some Kaiser-internal media there, he said, but nothing too big.

She said yes. But when she got home and told her mother, her nerves had calmed down.

“At first I was very nervous, very scared,” said Betty Cordova. She was worried about what would happen to her daughter’s body. At the same time she was “filled with hope and relief” because she knew that there was finally something against the virus.

Cordova texted her brothers saying they would get the vaccine the next day. Pray for me, she asked again.

She stayed up all night texting friends asking if she had made the right choice.

Cordova woke up early and reread the Pfizer studies. Before leaving, Betty told her that she had made up her mind that she, too, would be vaccinated in due course.

When she got to work, someone told her that her vaccination was going to be a slightly bigger event than they thought. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti would be there. And Newsom. And every news agency in the region.

Oh, they added, and she would be the first person in California to get the injection.

“Protect me,” she said with a laugh, just before a colleague stuck the needle in her arm, while people cheered and the cameras rolled.

Her phone exploded with ecstatic messages from friends and family she had seen on the news. But she also got hundreds of messages and friend requests on social media from strangers and immunization opponents.

She checked out comments on a television news channel’s Facebook post about her vaccine – Helen Cordova, you are going to die. Helen Cordova, you will never have children. – and never looked again.

Cordova now works as a nurse in Tarzana, a job she started a few hours after her first injection. She cheers when she asks patients if they are vaccinated, and they proudly add, “Yes, and I’m boosted!”

“I say, ‘Yes, you are! Yes you are!'”

Her mother now tells everyone who can – in church, in the doctor’s office, in the store – that her daughter is the nurse who got the first vaccine.

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