Half Moon Bay resident Bryce Jensen was among the first wave of frontline workers to receive the vaccine last week. He has worked night shifts as a pediatric intensive care nurse at University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Children's hospital for the last two years, and is expecting twin boys in March. This interview, with Review Deputy Editor Sarah Wright, has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about how you’re eligible for the vaccine and how you got it?
I am a pediatric ICU nurse at UCSF’s Benioff hospital. It is one of seven hospitals initially distributing the Pfizer vaccine.
The state has deemed some 1a workers, frontline workers in health care. Everyone in that category got an email saying the vaccine was there and we will be selected at random. There was a lottery among those people. I’m in my 30s, in a lower risk pool compared to my other coworkers. That was something I had to scratch my head about. But with HIPAA, you wouldn't disclose those things to your employer. So actually doing it in a random way made sense.
They did a batch of 900 this week, then another random pool of 900 or so. And then every week, they are letting people sign up to get the opportunity to get the vaccine. Then, when you have been selected, you have 72 hours to respond.
If you decline, it kicks back into the pool for seven days. They are giving you an opportunity to say “yes” or “no” with the intention that everyone gets that same opportunity. The plan is to get everyone vaccinated within six weeks.
We have what’s called a “multi-phase distribution plan,” divided into phase 1a: UCSF clinical and nonclinical health care workers who are at high risk for COVID-19, emergency, urgent care, inpatient care and students with resident fellows, and support or facility staff going into areas. Once that’s done, then 1b with high-risk patients and people 65 or older with chronic conditions.
One thing that is really important to me to stress to other people, although I chose to get the vaccine, this is an individual decision. It’s something people should think about, understanding the known risks and the unknown risks.
I'm not someone who says you should do a medical intervention without thought. I just wanted to tell people my experience, not that this is a silver bullet. The hard part about public health is separating the individual from the group.
My decision-making is: I am in the low-risk pool, however, my contacts — my wife is pregnant, my inlaws are high risk, other family members are in other high-risk pools and I work with a very high-risk population, kids in critical conditions. My concern with me getting the vaccine was less about me and more about the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis.
If in another situation where I'm just a 32 year old, not married, not with a family, not working in a hospital, then I might wait it out.
There are unseen risks here that are important to weigh in that decision. Initially I thought I might do it because of the limited amount going around. Maybe I should think about it going to that high-risk population.
It did take a lot of careful thinking on my part to decide whether or not this would be right for me.
The thing is, I listened to medical professionals, like (pediatric vaccine specialist) Paul Offit. I listened to him on a podcast with (Dr.) Peter Attia, who specializes in longevity, an MD who was almost getting type 2 diabetes. He is very analytical. Hearing him talking about the creation of vaccines, the process of vaccines, really gave me a better idea of how I should look at this decision. Ultimately getting this vaccine wasn't — I didn't get it to protect me as much as the people I interact with on the day to day.
Another thing is, what does this vaccine actually do? We don’t know yet if you’re still transmissible of the disease, or if it just offers protection for yourself. It’s really important to stress continuing with the protocols laid out with social distancing and mask wearing until we see the vaccine at a population level, hundreds of thousands if not millions, to see how it’s working.
We’ll have to see. I'm willing to take that risk and move forward. I'm excited because I think if this mRNA vaccine is effective, this may become the gold standard for all vaccines. It's really one of the exciting things about this vaccine.
I’d love to hear more about your work through this pandemic for the last many months as an ICU nurse.
I work with children, and honestly, I've taken care of COVID patients. But children do not end up so much in the ICU. We usually get those who are asymptomatic. We screen every single person coming in, and that’s usually how we catch a COVID patient, not necessarily because they're sick. At our hospital. Kids have been really resilient against this virus, but they do carry it. I think one of the hardest things is the family dynamic. You only allow one visitor, one parent. That makes it really difficult on an emotional level, not being able to see your brothers or sisters while you're in the hospital, that has to be so hard. Especially for oncology patients who don't get that anymore.
It’s really changed the dynamic, definitely. Now we wear masks 24/7 in the hospital and goggles and face shields. It’s hard because part of being a health care provider is showing your face, and saying, hey, we’re both human. Now, with all the precautions, it's really difficult to maintain that level of humanity from the patient side. I always try to be empathetic, to bring that, but it’s hard, when they can’t even see your face.
I don't know when or if that’s ever going to change. That’s the tough part, working at an inpatient hospital. I like to think about medicine being this healing thing — not just in a medical sense, emotional, spiritual, all of it. But in a hospital setting it feels like triage now. Get you better and get you out, rather than do more and look at the whole picture. Working with kids, you really get a chance to do that. It’s just kind of changed.
It’s hard to imagine the hospital as a dangerous place.
Every day you’re there, you’re at risk. The best thing you can do is get people out. When you have a fever, go to the hospital. Now a shift — for the past 10 years, there’s been this idea, don’t come, only come if your symptoms are severe. Because of communicable diseases, we now have had that shift, and with the pandmeic, it’s been heightened.
And my wife is pregnant, and she goes to the same hospital I work. What is crazy, is I haven't been able to go to any of the appointments. I have not been able to go with her except for the ultrasound. Two weeks ago was the first time I got to go. It was a specialty ultrasound, and thank god everything was good. That's a really sad thing. It's a big moment. My wife, when she got to see the first ultrasound with the little babies, I wasn't there. I'm feeling it as a provider and as a patient too.
How has your reaction to the vaccine been so far?
I’ve had no reactions or symptoms. My arm was sore yesterday, it feels great today. I got the vaccine on the 18th, and Day 2, my arm feels great. I had a day of soreness.
I was in the military, and I got so many vaccines. Sometimes it hurt for a week, but this ain’t too bad. I hear for the Pfizer vaccine, the second is the one that gets you really going. I just wanted to post my experience. I am a real person that lives here and maybe my experience will help someone make their decision.
I haven't got a haircut since the beginning of the pandemic, but now with the babies, I decided not to get one until they’re born. We’re having twin boys, so they’re a little high risk. It was supposed to be an April due date, but now it’s a mid-March due date. They’re real pandemic babies, and will be born at the one year mark. We were thinking about traveling, but now as the pandemic continues, we’re staying at home. This is the perfect time to have kids.
This version corrects the hospital where Jensen works.