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Bellmore-Merrick residents roll up their sleeves for Covid-19 vaccine

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As the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines roll out across the country, Bellmore and Merrick residents are among the thousands of New Yorkers who have already received their first doses of the treatments.

The vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech began nationwide distribution in mid-December after receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Moderna vaccine was approved for use a week later, and both treatments were more than 90 percent effective in preventing coronavirus infection during clinical trials.

Experts say the vaccines should be widely available to the public by April or May. In the meantime, the first doses will go to essential workers, in particular hospital employees, long-term care facility workers and emergency medical technicians, as well as nursing home residents.

The Herald spoke with local health care workers who recently received their first Covid-19 inoculations. Each viewed the vaccines’ arrival as a light at the end of the tunnel — having toiled through the first wave of the pandemic — but noted that preventive measures should still be taken as hospitals face a second wave.

Merrick resident Fran Stevens has worked in the emergency department at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside for more than 30 years, but she had never seen the volume of critically ill and dying patients treated at the hospital that she saw at the height of the pandemic. She received an initial dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine just after Christmas, and is due for her second shot on Jan. 20.

“Since we’re getting inundated again, something has to be done — this is not going away with masking and social distancing,” Stevens said. “The vaccine is giving us hope that we can eradicate this [virus] and get it under control.”

Merrick resident Oanh Handel became emotional when asked to recall the early months, which were filled with uncertainty and fear. She is a behavioral health specialist in the emergency department of St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, which had the second highest coronavirus death rate in New York City at the peak of the pandemic, according to St. John’s director of marketing, Thomas Melillo.

“It just brings back memories that we don’t want to relive again,” Handel said. “You didn’t know what you would face every day, but you knew it wasn’t going to be pretty.”

Melillo said St. John’s had administered more than 600 initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to its staff as of Monday, adding that none had reacted adversely to it.

For Elizabeth McEntee, of North Bellmore, rollout of the vaccine was particularly exciting for her and her staff. She’s the emergency room nurse manager at Northwell’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, where the first Covid-19 vaccination in the nation was administered to critical-care nurse Sandra Lindsay, of Port Washington.

“Since we don’t know who’s walking in the door, we treat everyone as if they’re Covid positive,” McEntee said of her department. “The vaccine is an added layer of protection.”

McEntee received her second round of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Thursday.

North Merrick resident Rob Wechsler, a pharmacist at Plainview Hospital, received the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 22. He said the science behind development of the Covid-19 vaccines is “fairly solid,” since they are mRNA-based.

“That type of scientific technology has been used on various cancer treatments for the better part of the last decade — it’s not something that came out of nowhere,” he explained. “Since there’s no way to study the long-term effects, there’s no way to disprove that part of [people’s] skepticism. The benefit of this vaccine clearly outweighs the risk.”

More than half of respondents to a Truth in Medicine poll conducted by MSSN in October said they would not take a vaccine or were unsure if they would, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of MSSN’s Department of Medicine and chief of infectious diseases. Recent national polls have indicated that the number willing to take it may be climbing, and is now approaching 60 percent.

David Nemiroff, president and CEO of Long Island Federally Qualified Health Centers, said many people were skeptical about vaccines before the pandemic, so it may be difficult to persuade everyone that getting a shot is safe, but he believes public support will grow.

McEntee suggested that people consult their primary-care physicians and educate themselves before deciding to get the vaccine, pointing to resources available on Northwell’s website. “Know your source — don’t discount the hard work that scientists have done,” she said.

Wechsler said the advice he received from infectious disease experts made his decision to roll up his sleeve fairly easy. “When your turn comes, don’t give [it] up,” he added. “Get the shot.”

Handel admitted that she was hesitant about getting the vaccine, but chose to trust the science and be part of the solution. “I’m tired of going to the grocery store feeling like it’s a commando mission,” she said. “This is real, and we need to take the proper measures to get out of it.”

Laura Lane, Jeff Bessen and Mike Smollins contributed to this story.