Dr. James Boyle wore a T-shirt Wednesday that said, “All I want for Christmas is a vaccine,” and he got his wish as the first Decatur Morgan Hospital staff member to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Boyle, a pulmonologist, is medical director of the intensive care and critical care units at Decatur Morgan Hospital. In that capacity, he has been on the front line of the hospital's treatment of COVID-19 patients since March.
The doctor said he felt obligated to get the vaccine because he fears contracting the virus and infecting a patient or family member.
"That would be a consequence that I do not want to carry for the rest of my life," he said.
He also took the vaccine because he wants life to return to normal.
"A reason I took the vaccine and I encourage people to take the vaccine is so we can get back to normal faster," he said. "We can get people back to work. We can get our businesses completely back open. We can get our children back in school.
"The vaccine gives us a clear pathway to doing that. But we have to get past people’s anxiety and fear about getting the vaccine. We don’t get there if we don’t get people to take the vaccine. … I’ve been out of church, and that’s been hard for me. I haven’t been into my parents’ house since March, and that’s been hard for me and it’s been hard for them.”
Noel Lovelace, vice president of development, said the hospital received enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the initial allocation to give first vaccine doses to 169 physicians and 437 staff members. The vaccine requires two doses, spaced three weeks apart. Officials with the Alabama Department of Public Health expect another vaccine, developed by Moderna, to be available as soon as next week.
Health care workers and nursing home residents will receive the first vaccines. The vaccines should be available to the general public by spring.
Boyle said he is confident in the safety of the Pfizer vaccine, which has been injected into thousands of people during clinical trials.
“I have bigger risks in my life that I do every day,” he said. “I use a saw in the shop and put myself at risk. I’m a beekeeper, which puts me at risk. I ride motorcycles — I’ve ridden motorcycles since I was 13 — and that puts me at risk. All of those things are bigger risks than me taking this vaccine. So if I’m going to be true to myself, if I want to live a risk-free life, then I have to stop all those other things if I’m not going to get a vaccine.”
He said he has already advised his parents and other family members to get the vaccine as soon as it is available to them.
“The vaccine will not work if it doesn’t go into arms and stays in the freezer. We’ve got to get people to take the vaccine to get this suffering to stop as quick as possible,” he said.
David Spillers, CEO of Huntsville Hospital Health System, which includes Decatur Morgan and Athens-Limestone hospitals, said any slight risk in taking the vaccine must be weighed against the risk of contracting a potentially fatal disease. He said not all hospital staff have agreed to take the vaccine, but doctors in the system invariably plan to take it.
“So people who understand vaccines, who understand how this has been developed and would understand if there are risk issues, choose to take the vaccine,” Spillers said. “Now a lot of those people have probably also seen somebody with COVID. When you die from COVID, it’s usually that you just get to the point you can’t breathe, which is a terrible way to die.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported that six more Morgan County residents had died of COVID-19, the most reported in a single day. Since the pandemic began, 70 Morgan County residents have died from the virus.
Decatur Morgan Hospital had 98 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients on Wednesday. Sixteen of those were in intensive care, including 13 on ventilators. Spillers said some patients had to be transported recently from Decatur Morgan Hospital, which was at capacity, to Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield.
Spillers said the Huntsville Hospital Health System received 7,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which are being distributed across north Alabama. As required by the Alabama Department of Public Health, Spillers said, 70% of the doses will go to front-line hospital staff. There are 11,000 hospital workers in the system who have direct contact with patients. About 15% of the doses will go to first responders, and another 15% will go to community physicians and their staff.
Nursing home residents will receive doses separately pursuant to a federal contract with major pharmacies.
Spillers said many people are spreading COVID-19 without knowing they have it.
“About 10% of the people we test (who have COVID-19) are asymptomatic. They have no symptoms and no reason to believe they have COVID. You need to remember that when you’re out and about, engaging with groups,” he said. “Also take that into consideration when you start thinking about your Christmas gatherings. Our family is not getting together for Christmas, and I hate that, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s very likely that somebody in the family may have COVID, and then other people will get COVID.”
Spillers said he is certain area COVID-19 hospitalizations will increase before they subside because of the high rate of tests that that are coming back positive — 51.4% in Morgan County over the last two weeks — and the large number of new infections.
He said throughout the course of the pandemic, about 12-15% of all people who test positive for COVID-19 are ultimately hospitalized. In Morgan County, an average of 117 people per day have been infected over the last week.
“We can look at the trend of how many people have had COVID, been diagnosed over the last couple of weeks. Based upon that we do not see the current peak going down probably until after Christmas, maybe into January before it goes back down,” he said. “A lot of that depends on what people do for Christmas.”
He said Christmas gatherings pose even more risk than Thanksgiving gatherings did because active infections are more prevalent in north Alabama now.