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World War II veteran, former POW, receives first COVID-19 vaccine in Birmingham

Korean War veteran and POW Norman Hale. (Joe Songer | [email protected]/TNS)

A 94-year-old World War II veteran and prisoner of war received the first COVID-19 vaccine in Birmingham on Tuesday at the VA Medical Center.

Lee Elm Creel of Snowtown rolled up his sleeve to make history as one of the first in the state to receive a vaccine developed by Pfizer that received emergency use authorization on Friday. Hospitals across the state began administering vaccines Tuesday, but the VA was the first in Birmingham to start giving shots.

“It felt about like a flu shot,” said Creel, who waited in the VA for 15 minutes after he received his vaccine so health care workers could watch for reactions. “I feel fine.”

Stacy Vasquez, CEO of the Birmingham VA Medical Center, said she decided to invite former POWs to receive the first vaccines because they represent they are the bravest people she knows.

Korean War veteran and POW Norman Hale. (Joe Songer | [email protected]/TNS)

“It’s only fitting that after everything they’ve given to our country, they should be first to get the vaccine,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez said the VA Medical Center received 1,950 vaccines to use before the end of the year. The first batch would go to health care workers and older veterans, she said. All three veterans who received shots Tuesday are 90 years or older.

“You all are the bravest people I know,” Vasquez said. “If anyone can convince people to get the vaccine, it’s you all.”

Newton Duke, a 90-year-old Army veteran who was a POW during the Korean War, said the isolation from the pandemic has been hard to deal with. He said he missed bowling and traveling in the mountains. His age puts him at high risk for complications from COVID.

“I’m ready,” Duke said. “Let’s get this thing on the road.”

Norman Hale, 90, of Vinemont said he felt others needed the shot more than him.

Stacy Vasquez, CEO of the Birmingham VA receives the COVID-19 vaccine. (Joe Songer | [email protected]/TNS)

“But I’m happy to get it,” Hale said. “I think it’s probably pretty safe. I won’t know until I get it.”

Vasquez said staff at the hospital have been caring for many patients suffering from COVID-19. Some have been treated in the ICU, and others in the medical center’s dedicated COVID unit. Many front line medical staff will receive vaccines in the coming weeks. The Pfizer vaccine comes in two doses three weeks apart.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham also received a shipment of vaccines Tuesday. Staff will begin making appointments today for vaccines that will be administered starting Thursday. UAB will manage the distribution of vaccines for all the hospitals in Jefferson County and emergency medical services in the seven county area around Birmingham.

Dr. Sarah Nafziger, director of UAB’s emergency management committee, said the hospital had just 12 days to develop a plan to distribute vaccines to health care workers across the county. The hospital received 10,725 doses of vaccine.

WWII veteran and POW Lee Elm Creel. (Joe Songer | [email protected]/TNS)

“Our staff is going to work six days a week to accomplish this administration fo vaccines in a timely manner so we can get it delivered and get it to where it needs to be,” Nafziger said.

Nafziger said everyone at UAB is grateful to receive vaccines, but that they will not provide an immediate fix for the pandemic. The hospital had 161 patients receiving inpatient care for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a new high.

“While we’re excited to receive these vaccine doses, these are not going to save us from the surge we are in right now,” Nafziger said.

Close-up of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.. (Joe Songer | [email protected]/TNS)

COVID cases and hospitalizations have hit all-time highs in Alabama in recent weeks.

“These vaccines are going to help us with future surges,” Nafziger said. “But for now, I don’t want everyone to hear, ‘Oh, we have vaccines, we can go ahead and stop wearing our masks. We can not worry about social distancing. We can go ahead get together.’ Because that’s just simply not the case right now.”


(c) 2020 Alabama Media Group

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