December 23, 2020: ICHS frontline staff strike a pose after receiving Moderna COVID-19 vaccinations. The Moderna vaccines arrived after an earlier shipment of the Pfizer vaccine never materialized, possibly in response to federal-level hiccups in distribution. The precious vials, each of which holds 10 doses, were a milestone at the end of 2020 on the path to ending the pandemic. They are also emblematic of a national battle to ensure equity in who should be prioritized. At the same time the delivery offered new hope, lingering uncertainties about future supplies, pace of rollout, and who would qualify also presented new challenges in what felt like a race against time as cases continue to rise. ICHS’ mass testing site at Bellevue performed over 21,000 tests in the first month of opening on December 15. (Photo by Karen Ducey)

On December 23, International Community Health Services (ICHS) was among the area’s first health centers to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and begin vaccinating frontline health workers.

Reactions were jubilant, as staff saw the end of a tough year and the nation’s largest health crisis, come into sight.

“I’m not hesitant at all,” said Ping Yang, acupuncturist and the first to get the vaccine at the ICHS International District Clinic. “This is good for yourself, and for the community and for your family.”

Hope for normalcy included ICHS Legacy House residents cut off from family and social activities when state orders limited outside visitors. The assisted living facility was fortunate. Unlike many congregate care facilities, it has had zero cases of infection.

Raymond He, resident service specialist, looks forward to the eventual return of families. “There are a lot of needs that these residents have that we just can’t provide.” The isolation has been tough, he said. So has the loss of a regular routine. “It’s really taken a toll on all of them. Before they would do activities and socialize and come down-stairs for meals, but now that’s just not a thing.”

Much of ICHS’ staff come from with-in the communities the health clinic serves, and includes people of color, immigrants and refugees, who speak English as a second language. Many live in multigenerational homes that put family members in frequent close contact with each other.

Linh Lam Van, clinic support supervisor at the International District Clinic, described the stress of isolating from her elderly parents. She looks forward to safely caring for them and her three young children again. “From the beginning, everyone was so scared,” she said. “When I get home, I make sure I remove everything. I clean.”

“My hope for 2021 is everyone can get vaccinated and then we can go back to somewhat normal lives,” said Caiyou Wu, medical assistant at the ICHS International District Clinic. She wants her child back in school, she said. “Honestly, social distance with your family and your friends and other people, is kind of tiring for those last few months.”

Some staff members cried — visibly shaken by the emotion and symbolism of moving on from a pandemic that has severely taxed them, possibly more than any other event in the health center’s nearly 50-year history.

“Especially for the frontline, because we are in really, really close contact with the patient,” said Van.

In addition to PPE shortages, fears of infection and daily uncertainty, front-line health workers have contended with acute resource and staffing shortages and disrupted work-life balance. They face a high risk of depression, anxiety and burnout — with much of the daily burden disproportionately shouldered by work-ing women like Van, who are more likely to be sandwiched between work, child-care and giving care to aging parents.

Dr. Beth Weitensteiner, assistant medical director at ICHS Holly Park Clinic described staff as “heroes,” acutely aware of their responsibilities. “They’re the people that are coming in, and they too are concerned about them-selves, concerned about their family.”

“We should also be very compassion-ate to our staff and understand what they’re going through,” said Aliya Haq, ICHS nutrition services manager. She pointed out the weight on staff, as patients see only a seamless change with new safety protocols and new services, like telehealth and telephone appointments; unaware of the behind-the-scenes work. “They are people who also need to be taken care of.”

Nearly all of ICHS’ staff have patients, friends and family members, who have been touched by the pandemic.

“It is really difficult to read about al-most 3,000 healthcare workers in this country that have passed away from COVID,” said Mary Wilson, RN at ICHS Legacy House, as she took turns vaccinating staff members. “This is just such an exciting moment to get this vaccine and to be part of this.”

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