Lana Susskind-Wilder after receiving her first COVID-19 vaccination in December.

As 2020 drew to a close, Pam Moreno, a therapist for Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s senior programs, found herself looking forward to a much brighter 2021.

After discovering she qualified for Phase 1A of the COVID-19 vaccination program, she drove to Chandler and what appeared to be a football field-sized space with several rows of cars. The Army National Guard and various fire departments were assisting as cars approached the injection stations. She was surprised by the orderly nature of the event. Twenty-five minutes after she pulled into line, she was vaccinated and on her way home. It was no more painful than a flu shot, she said.

“Everything was so organized,” she said. “I didn’t even get out of my car.”

Everyone involved — whether on the giving or receiving end — was excited and the atmosphere was joyous, Moreno said.

After nearly a year of dealing with COVID, as well as the current surge in infections and hospitalizations, she feels hopeful for the first time.

In Maricopa County alone, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities were hit hard. Since March, more than 9,400 residents and staff were infected and more than 1,400 people died.

Due in large part to that record, Phase 1A includes front-line health care workers and long-term care facility staff and residents. Following on their heels in Phase 1B are those over the age of 75. This next phase will also include those working in child care and education as well as public safety employees and is set to start in mid- to late January, according to Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS).

ADHS faced criticism in the last two weeks about a slower than optimal rollout and continued confusion about when to expect the vaccine and where to go to receive it. Despite these concerns, many people — though not all — are giving the department the benefit of the doubt.

Rabbi Mindie Snyder, rabbi and chaplain for Sun Health Communities, received her vaccine Dec. 30 in an “orderly and expedient” process. She was vaccinated in the first phase due to her work with a vulnerable senior population.

“I’m doing this for them and I’m doing this for the community at large,” she said about receiving the vaccine. “This is bigger than myself.”

Rabbinically, she added, vaccinations are important in that they protect life.

“This is a very big deal,” she said. “We understand whoever saves one life is considered as if they saved an entire world.”

In terms of the rollout, she is under no illusion that it will be quick or that even when the pace picks up the problem of COVID will go away. There is a “huge scientific and logistics effort,” she said, behind the “life-saving intervention.”

On the day she was vaccinated, she ministered to someone with COVID who was feeling its effects. Even though the person didn’t go to the hospital, they felt very isolated. “For people who think it’s not a big deal,” she said, “that’s the part that concerns me.”

Still, with the vaccine finally here, she asked, “How can you be other

than hopeful?”

Others are less sanguine.

“There are still so many unanswered questions,” said Monica McCullough, Madrona Hospice & Palliative Care’s nursing director.

In early December, McCullough worried about how the vaccine would be rolled out, who would be prioritized and whether those decisions would be met with acceptance or anger. But by the end of December, she’d received the vaccine and is now anticipating vaccines for her staff members, who are at risk when visiting community members. The good news, she said, is that the majority of them are anxious to get vaccinated.

The unknown, however, casts a shadow for her.

“We’re just kind of rolling the dice and praying that we’re going in the right direction,” she said. “This is virgin territory for everybody.”

Lana Susskind-Wilder, a Jewish neuropsychologist, was vaccinated the first week vaccines were available in Phoenix. She found the process efficient.

The majority of her clients are seniors who are still waiting to find out when they will be vaccinated. However, she’s witnessed no resentment that health care workers are first in line.

“They know what people are doing for them and recognize why it’s important and are supportive,” she said. “The response is more, ‘Thank god, you got yours — I’m excited to get mine.’”

Susskind-Wilder regularly sees patients face-to-face, easily spending more than an hour doing a neurological assessment. While she wears PPE during the exam, she finds herself wondering if, having had the virus a few months ago, she still has immunity. The idea of the vaccine brought her some relief. “I never had a moment of questioning if I would take it.”

“I’m hesitant to be too optimistic,” she added. “Until we get to herd immunity, we’ll continue to be at risk, and I hope we don’t get to a place where we take the attitude with people who don’t want to take it: You’re on your own. I have hope that over time other people will become more comfortable, and that’s how we’ll all get back to normal.”

“I’m just glad we’re getting it when we are,” said Crystal Tang, director of therapeutic respiration at Kivel Campus of Care. She expects to be vaccinated in the middle of January — timing that makes sense to her.

But Marlene Waterman, an 84-year-old resident in Kivel’s assisted-living facility, was hoping she’d already be celebrating her first injection of the vaccine. “It’s not coming soon enough,” she said.

Barbara Kraver who lives independently at the Beatitudes Campus, received a surprise call at 1 p.m. on Dec. 28, telling her if she came to the office at 3:30 p.m., she’d receive the vaccine. Kraver only had one moment of trepidation: “I’d sure like to know the ingredients because I have a few allergies,” she said. “But when they called me I was all up for it.”

She arrived promptly and two hours later she was vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine. She will have a second injection Jan. 26.

Her husband has been in the nursing facility at Beatitudes for nine months due to dementia and various physical ailments. Kraver, along with six other Beatitudes residents with a partner in nursing care, are the only ones allowed to visit as designated caretakers. All seven were vaccinated.

“I got a little nervous, but I was excited,” Kraver said. “I feel fine — maybe my arm’s a little bit sore.”

Her 42nd wedding anniversary was Jan. 1, and the vaccine is finally offering a bright spot in what was a difficult year.

“With my husband in the nursing center for nine months and with dementia and all the conditions he is living with — I want to get back to going every day and holding his hand,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that things will get better.”

Bernie Aronson, 86, described himself as a “great believer in vaccinations of

all kinds.”

“I have 30-plus years of borrowed time,” he said, referring to the fact that both of his parents died in their 50s. “When I’m allowed to have the vaccination, I’m going to get it.”

His only concern now is whether enough people will take the vaccine to reach herd immunity.

“That’s where you need political and religious leadership,” he said. “I was brought up that you help your neighbor.”

He also remembered as a child, if someone had the measles, a public health official would put a quarantine sign on the door. “People respected that,” he said. “We’ve moved away from civic responsibility and acceptance and now we think we have the freedom to say no. That’s anarchy.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea where I am on the list,” said Melvin Selbst, 93. “I’ll probably be last.”

Selbst, another resident at Beatitudes in the independent living section, has no doubt that when it’s his turn, “I’ll take it any time they want to give it to me. I have no concerns at all.”

“When you get older, you’re always looking for hope,” he added. JN

Additional reporting by Kathleen Stinson.

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