Emily Boucher, a nurse in Abingdon, became the first person in Virginia's Appalachian region to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of Ballad Health. Vaccine Distributed in Abingdon
Emily Boucher, a nurse in Abingdon, became the first person in Virginia's Appalachian region to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of Ballad Health.

Emily Boucher calls Tuesday a turning point for Southwest Virginia.

ABINGDON- The pandemic isn’t over but Tuesday was a step in the right direction. A registered nurse became the first person to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in Virginia’s Appalachian region. ICU nurse Emily Boucher got the shot while on Ballad Health’s Facebook Live, encouraging others to do the same when the vaccine is available.

“I am very honored and excited to be the first COVID-19 vaccine recipient in the Appalachian Highlands,” said Boucher. “Today is an incredibly hopeful day. With this vaccine, my teammates and I can be more assured that we’re safer from the virus when we go to work every day.”

After a huge wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Boucher called today a turning point in the pandemic. On Dec. 13, Ballad Health reported a record number of inpatient admissions, with 314 patients admitted. And as a whole, the Southwestern part of Virginia hasn’t been doing too well.

READ MORE: Southwest Responsible for 30% of Virginia’s New COVID-19 Cases

A Glimmer of Hope

COVID-19 hit the Southwestern part of Virginia hard. Just last week, the Southwest was responsible for 30% of Virginia’s new COVID-19 cases in one day. And those numbers have not improved by much since then. As recently as Saturday, the region saw a record number of COVID-19 cases with 229 in 24 hours.

Today, the region reported 196 new cases of the virus, with 13 new deaths since Monday. Boucher herself saw what the virus has done firsthand. Working as an ICU nurse in the Johnson Memorial Hospital, she and her teammates are often working over 12 hours a day with incredibly sick patients who’re aren’t able to see their loved ones.

“I will never stop trying to convince everyone of the reality of COVID-19,” said Boucher. “Every day my teammates and I care for patients who are fighting for their lives. This has been such a hard time because we’re caring for patients who are lonely and scared. It’s incredibly difficult to lose multiple patients in a single shift.”

But, medical personnel don’t just have to worry about the mental toll of this job. After dealing with many COVID patients in close quarters, they also have to worry about not catching the virus themselves or giving it to their loved ones. With this vaccine in place, it makes their jobs safer.

READ MORE: Only Some Virginians Will Receive the First Vaccine Batch. Here’s Why.

Vaccine Protects the Most Vulnerable First

While it’s great that this vaccine exists, unfortunately it’s in limited supply, meaning that the government has to prioritize who gets it first. Right now, the CDC recommends that healthcare professionals and residents of long-term care facilities will be the first to get vaccinated.

Since the pandemic began, hundreds of outbreaks have popped up in long-term care facilities in the state. Now, there are currently 694.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine, developed by Pfizer, on Friday. Two days later, the company delivered over 72,000 vaccines to 18 healthcare systems across the state. According to a statement from Gov. Ralph Northam, Pfizer and Moderna will give 480,000 doses of the vaccine to the rest of the state by the end of the month.

Is The Vaccine Safe?

Despite the FDA approving the vaccine, there are still many concerned about safe it is. Many people are specifically concerned with how quick the vaccine development process was. However, Ballad Health wants to assure anyone with doubts that this virus is safe.

“While it was a fast process, the vaccine did go through all three phases,” said Executive Director Alan Levine. “So it was determined by the data to be safe and highly effective.” According to Levine, the Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective in preventing mild to severe COVID-19 symptoms.

During the conference, both Boucher and Levine addressed concerns about the vaccine’s safety. And to people saying the virus is dangerous, Boucher says whatever risk the vaccine may bring, the virus itself is way worse.

“I just want to say that I’ve read and listened to things about this vaccine,” said Boucher. “And I’ve seen this virus and what it can do to people. Not only to the people fighting for their lives, but also the people may never come to the hospital who live with long term side effects. After looking at the safety data, I’m way more willing to take a small risk a vaccine might pose than to deal with actual virus.”

Boucher has said that her and team mates goals don’t stop at fighting COVID-19, but also fighting any misinformation that’d spread about the virus or vaccines.

“I will never stop trying to convince everyone of the reality of COVID-19,” said Boucher. “Every day my teammates and I care for patients who are fighting for their lives. This has been such a hard time because we’re caring for patients who are lonely and scared. It’s incredibly difficult to lose multiple patients in a single shift.”

What Should We Do In the Meantime?

While this amazing news should be celebrated, it’s important for us to remember that the pandemic is not over yet. It may be a while until everyone can get the vaccine. Until then, health professionals recommend to keep practicing good COVID-19 hygiene, like social distancing, wearing a mask and following the governor’s guidelines.

“The vaccine does not mean the pandemic is over,” said Levine. “It is just a ray of sunshine what’s been a pretty dark time.”

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with the Dogwood. You can reach her at arianna@couriernewsroom.com