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First Elder in Region Gets Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine

Elder man with a face mask sitting in a chair talking with nurse who is wearing a face shield
Phillip Dexter, the first elder to be administered the COVID-19 vaccine in Nome, awaiting his vaccination by Nurse Marla Mayberry. (Photo by Cathy Rubano, December 2020.)

The Norton Sound region’s first 975 doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Nome Wednesday The Norton Sound Health Corporation went straight to work administering those vaccines to residents in the nursing home and staff members on the frontlines. KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter went to the Quyanna Care Center in Nome to see Nome’s first Elder get the vaccine.

Phillip Dexter is a 96-year-old Elder from Golovin. He sits with his feet up in a cushy green armchair. Dexter is hard of hearing and there’s about twenty feet between him and the reporters, so the nursing staff helps facilitate the conversation.

Marla Mayberry is the NSHC nurse administering the vaccine to Dexter. Just moments before, she got the jab herself.

Mayberry: “Are you excited to get the new vaccine?”

Dexter: “Oh, yeah. I guess I am… in my own way.”

Mayberry: “You’re going to keep people safe?”

Dexter: “Yeah.”

She holds up the vial. It is tiny.

“It’s 3/10th of an mL. The flu vaccine is a whole lot larger than that and it don’t hurt near as bad. I already had mine, it don’t hurt near as bad.”

There’s no live virus in the vial given to the Elder. Instead, it contains an mRNA vaccine, unlike any other vaccine used before in the United States. Once injected into the body, it makes a protein that essentially acts like a warning poster by imitating the spiky coronavirus crown. The immune system learns to fight that shape in the future should it come into contact with the real COVID-19.

The vaccine does have some side effects like a fever, headache, and most common, pain at the injection site. But there have been some rare cases of severe allergic reactions to the vaccine, including a healthcare worker in Juneau. Just in case, NSHC workers are prepared.

“And we have epipens on standby in case anybody has any kind of reaction.”

Once Phillip Dexter is comfortable, he rolls up his sleeve and it’s time to get the shot.

Mayberry: 1,2,3!”

Mayberry injects the vaccine.

Dexter: “That was fun!

Next, Dexter gets monitored in case he has any adverse reactions.

Mayberry: “Did the medicine hurt when I put it in your arm?

Dexter: “No. I didn’t feel anything.”

Seven minutes later, Dexter isn’t showing any signs of pain or distress. His spirits are high as he regales the nurses with some tales of working as a goldminer in decades past.

Mayberry: “You don’t feel no pain?”

Dexter: “No… at least not yet.”

Now how do you get a bunch of Elders in one place to be vaccinated and then monitored? Well, it’s a pretty simple solution, Mayberry says; you play some Bingo.

“We’re actually going to have a big Bingo party up here in the front with everyone and we can watch everybody at one time after they’ve had the injection.”

– Marla Mayberry

NSHC reportedly received 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The QCC nursing home residents and staff will get the shots first but then NSHC is undergoing a massive mobilization to vaccinate all of its staff—starting with workers on the frontline.

The full vaccine requires two doses, administered three weeks apart, and is then reported to be over 90% effective in preventing COVID-19. Phillip Dexter has a simple reason for getting vaccinated:

“To prevent me from getting the virus.” 

– Phillip Dexter

NSHC officials had hoped to get the Pfizer vaccine out to village clinics but now say the vials are too delicate. The corporation says they are working to get the Moderna vaccine out to village clinics once that vaccine is authorized and available.

Image at top: Phillip Dexter, the first elder to be administered the COVID-19 vaccine in Nome, awaiting his vaccination by Nurse Marla Mayberry. (Photo by Cathy Rubano, December 2020.)

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