Recently vaccinated Planned Parenthood staff share what challenges the pandemic brought.
RICHMOND – “It was, like, an awesome way to celebrate the New Year,” said Dr. Shanthi Ramesh, medical director for the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood.
On Jan. 1, 2021, Ramesh and her colleagues became some of the first people in Virginia to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. The initial doses arrived in the commonwealth just two weeks before.
The opportunity came at a good time for the league, which operates two clinics in the Richmond area. Considered a safety net provider, Planned Parenthood offers services to people from all walks of life. Unfortunately, some of those individuals don’t have access to equitable healthcare offerings throughout the city, so the Virginia chapter of Planned Parenthood fills those gaps.
“We offer a full range of reproductive health services. So things that people typically associate Planned Parenthood for, like birth control, STD counseling, pap smears. We provide abortion services at all of our sites,” Ramesh said. “And then we’re a little unique in terms of Planned Parenthoods, in that we also offer primary care. So we see folks with high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and depression. And then we also offer gender confirming hormones for transgender patients. So really a pretty wide variety of services.”
Offering such a vast array of services to a wide variety of people, Ramesh welcomed the inoculation opportunity.
While VLPP doesn’t operate an emergency room, the doctors, nurses and staff there are still frontline healthcare workers. And some of the services VLPP offers require face-to-face interaction.
“The services that we offer, while some of them we could pivot to tele-health pretty early in the pandemic, others you can’t,” Ramesh said. “You know, it’s hard to get, like, an IUD placed virtually.”
The initial lack of a vaccine didn’t stop the group from providing care. As early as March, they realized COVID testing presented a big need in the community. Finding a COVID test early in the pandemic especially presented issues for patients without insurance or those who were undocumented.
Even given their in-person interactions with patients, Ramesh expressed initial uncertainly about when VLPP staff would receive the vaccine.
“A lot of the initial vaccine set up was around hospital systems and hospital employees,” Ramesh said. “While we as a safety net provider, you know, we have some associations with hospitals, but nothing that [would] allow us to get the vaccine.”
In Dec. 2020, that uncertainty changed. The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts partnered with five area safety net providers to inoculate staff with the COVID-19 vaccine.
“So we’re really, really thankful that this partnership with VDH, and standing with a group of other safety net providers, let us get access to that vaccine so early,” Ramesh said. “We’ve been at the front line, but not in the sense that many people think of when they read the news around COVID.”
The side effects from the first round weren’t life-altering. However, the second dose, which Ramesh received on Jan. 29, was not a pleasant ordeal.
“With the first vaccine, I just had a sore arm, but felt pretty good the next day,” Ramesh said. “I think what we’re reading in the media is pretty common with that second [dose]. Definitely those first 24 hours after, I had some mild chills, body aches, a sore arm. But by Sunday morning I felt great.”
However, she didn’t look at the side effects negatively – rather, as proof that the vaccine did its job.
“I’m really just taking that as a sign that the first vaccine worked and my immune system has responded,” Ramesh said. “And if that is anything like what COVID feels like, [I’m] really thankful I did not get that.”
The doctor estimated that 50% of the frontline staff at the two clinics got the vaccine. Their decision to get the vaccine could influence others.
“We’re really seeing what we see in the community, where folks have additional questions about the vaccine. They want to see their friends and family and people they trust go through it,” Ramesh said. “And it’s been really interesting because I was vaccinated on [Jan. 1] and then got my second vaccine on Friday. And just even talking to our staff about my experience and why I trusted the vaccine, you know, people had said, ‘I think I’m ready to get this.’ And so we’re just seeing that that’s really important in this process, is that we talk really transparently about why we got vaccinated and why we’re recommending it.”
Another Line of Defense
Even though she received the second done of the vaccine, Ramesh noted that she and other colleagues still planned to practice social distancing and wear masks. However, the vaccine added another line of defense against the virus.
“I think it gives us just such an additional layer of safety,” Ramesh said. “…It’s going to be a lot less stressful when I wake up in the morning and I’m wondering if it’s a cold. ‘Or is this COVID? It’s probably just a cold.’ And so it’s just a huge, huge weight off of our shoulders to know that we have this additional layer of protection.”
Making Informed Decisions
Ramesh addressed the public concern around the process the vaccine went through to hit the market less than a year after COVID-19 first surfaced in the states.
“First as a doctor, I trust the process that the faculty’s went through. I think there’s a lot of, like, paperwork and tape that [a] normal vaccine process goes through that isn’t related to health and safety. So these vaccines are safe. They have proven to be effective. They are approved by the FDA through this emergency use process. And so I really feel comforted by the rigor of the clinical trials they went through. Certainly, we’re collecting more data all the time,” Ramesh said. “So I am absolutely recommending that people get vaccinated.”
For those on the fence about whether or not to get the vaccine, Ramesh encouraged speaking with their doctor.
“Definitely do your research and ask what questions you have,” Ramesh said. “We have patients and staff that are pregnant or breastfeeding, and talking more in-depth about what we know and what we don’t know in those populations is real important. And I think just realizing that, you know, vaccination can be a really scary thing. And there [is] absolutely historical mistrust in the medical system. So being a place where you can be open and honest about that with your patients and friends and family is really important. And this isn’t about vaccine shaming or mandates. It’s really about information and helping people make the right choice for them.”
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org