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HCMC physician: The vaccine ‘felt like a turning point’

January 15, 2021

This community reporting project documents the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Prekker, critical care physician, Hennepin County Medical Center

My practice has continued to be busy. It hasn’t felt like there was ever much of a break or a let up after the surge in the summer and spring. 

Everyone was concerned about the holidays and how folks in the community would be about quarantining and avoiding large gatherings and we’ve certainly stayed very busy with COVID at HCMC, but we didn’t really see a big third surge. 

We’re a little unique in the Twin Cities in that patients who come to us by ambulance or into our emergency departments are primarily residents of urban Minneapolis and the near south and western suburbs. Other hospitals in the area are part of larger health systems with patients from well outside the city, extending into the state and western Wisconsin. The first wave this summer was probably busier at HCMC than other institutions. During the second and third waves, that was flipped and we were less affected and disrupted while our colleagues outside the Twin Cities were seeing their most intense care and problems with resource shortages. 

Getting the vaccine was easily one of the more emotional times I’d had with colleagues and staff at the hospital. We were secretly a little jealous watching our colleagues at the VA hospital getting those first doses. 

HCMC did just a fantastic job. The frozen boxes of vaccine arrived at Hennepin on a Friday and that same afternoon my partners and I in critical care were in line to get our first dose. It was fun to be in these big (social distanced) lines; it felt like a celebration of sorts. I was there that day with nurses and environmental services workers and lab technicians. We had control of something. We were doing something actively to protect ourselves and our families. That was pretty powerful. 

It felt like a turning point, though of course I’m a doctor in an acute care hospital and most of the population is still waiting for that moment. I didn’t have any symptoms other than a sore arm after the first shot. I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week and felt a little achy with some chills for about a day, but it resolved with over-the-counter Tylenol. It was the best mild cold I ever had because I knew I was getting immune — or at least immune to the severe disease. 

There’s a phase 1B for health care workers primarily in non-COVID settings. My wife’s a pediatrician at the hospital and she waited a couple weeks after me to get the first round and now she’s due for the second. We’re not yet offering the vaccine to patients in our community, though there are plans in the works for that. 

We’re not doing anything different at the hospital after being vaccinated. It’s important to be good leaders as front-line workers at Hennepin and not go back to doing in-person education conferences or grand rounds or those types of things before everyone on our team is vaccinated. Plus, we think that even if you’ve been vaccinated, you can still carry the virus to some extent. We’re still masked up all the time, our PPE requirements are the same and my colleagues haven’t cut any corners because we still have a healthy respect for the infection.

What I’ve seen coming out of the Biden administration in terms of health planning and organization of HHS and leadership of the CDC — I’m really enthusiastic about. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the new administration and if we can come out of the tailspin that’s been this pandemic and get everybody’s lives back on track. All the unfinished business from 2020 is still on my mind in terms of health and social disparities and the way we approach minority communities. 

My research has been going well. We’ve gathered a lot of information about critically ill patients and have been sending the CDC biospecimens — leftover nasal swabs from folks with COVID — so they can get a window into what a busy ICU looks like. I think that’s been useful for them to help make policy and inform their public health practices around bed and surge capacity. It’s a way to get past the hyperbole and drama that occurred earlier and say, “Hey, this actually was really intense and this is exactly what we were experiencing.” That will inform preparedness for other disasters and mass-casualty events in the future. 

We’re also active participants with the NIH in trials of cutting-edge antibody and immunoglobulin medications. We’re a site for the Operation Warp Speed trials around monoclonal antibody cocktails and a study on how much do you need to thin a bed-bound COVID patient’s blood to prevent clots. Our enrollment in these studies actually dipped a bit this month because the cases have gone down — and that’s a good thing. I can count our ICU COVID patients on two hands now, which is probably a five-fold decrease from the peak. 

Fran and I are still keeping our immediate family bubble intact. In my opinion the risks still outweigh the benefits in terms of going back to the social stuff we enjoy. We were pleased the governor started up youth sports and activities and that our kids could go back into their swim club. That little shot of normalcy has been totally welcome. But short of that, we’ve been pretty conservative. 

We’ve missed out, like everyone, on a lot of the events we enjoy. Holiday celebrations were a little bit more intimate this year when it was just our immediate family. We’ve been lucky not to have any close family die of COVID but there have been other deaths in the family we haven’t been able to acknowledge or grieve like we normally would. But that’s not unique to us.

Our three school-age kids are still all remote. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Minneapolis schools are saying younger kids could go back in February, and we’re looking forward to that. It’s been a lot of screen time for the kids — they’re on the computer more than I am and they’re not yet 10 years old. But they’ve had amazing focus and perseverance. We’ve had to bolster the help around the house to make sure their work is getting done when Fran and I are at the hospital. We’re doing fine, we’re in a really good position and I think we’ll be OK.  

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