“This is the beginning of a new beginning,” Dr. Hugh Cassiere said immediately after receiving the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday.
Cassiere, the director of critical care services at Northwell Health’s North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., joined the frontline health care workers across the nation who began receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on Monday. That same day, the U.S. faced a grim milestone as the death toll from the virus topped 300,000 people.
New York was one of the first and hardest-hit states during the pandemic. During its surge in the spring, Cassiere and his team treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients. It’s an experience that left psychological scars on him and many of his colleagues who fought the virus alongside him. “Post-traumatic stress disorder is real,” he told Yahoo News in July, describing how he could barely sleep at night.
But COVID-19 vaccines were already being developed and tested. In a process that historically has taken years, even decades, Pfizer-BioNTech managed the development, study and authorization of a vaccine in record time. Last Friday the Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency use authorization for the vaccine for the general public. And on Wednesday the federal government said enough doses to vaccinate more than 2.9 million people had been set aside for nursing home residents and frontline health care workers, like Cassiere.
“This is a dream come true. ... We’ve been in a tunnel for over a year. I always tell people there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I’m at the end of the tunnel and the sun is shining on my face now. I’m almost free,” Cassiere told Yahoo News.
After getting his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday — the protocol calls for a second dose in 21 days — he says he didn’t experience any immediate side effects and that people should have confidence in the vaccine.
“The shot felt like a normal vaccine shot. I tell people that the flu vaccine this year hurt my arm for a couple of days. I don’t even feel anything from the shot. I’ve had no fever, no chills, nothing. ... We shouldn’t worry about it,” Cassiere said.
A second coronavirus vaccine, developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, was approved for emergency use by the FDA on Friday. The first shots of the Moderna vaccine are expected to be given as soon as Monday.
“These vaccines are amazing in terms of their efficacy. If you get vaccinated by either Pfizer or Moderna ... you have over a 90 percent efficacy. What does that mean? Over 90 percent of people will be protected from getting this infection. This is just a dramatic game changer that will put this virus in the corner so that we can lead our lives again. And it’s very important that everyone gets vaccinated,” Cassiere added.
As encouraging as the vaccine news was this week, health experts are asking people not to let their guards down. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, the coronavirus vaccines will not be available to the general public probably until March or April. Mitigation measures, like mask wearing and handwashing, will continue to be critical in order to control the spread of the virus.
“During this whole phase of vaccinating the ‘essential workers,’ and then the public, we need to still strictly adhere to handwashing, social distancing, masks, no large gatherings. We’re all sick and tired of it, but we need to do this to save other people’s lives,” Cassiere advised. “It’s not just about yourself. It’s about saving others and your loved ones.”
Kate Murphy contributed reporting to this story.
Read more from Yahoo News: