The critical care nurse was one of the first in Richmond to treat a patient who tested positive for COVID-19. On Wednesday, she became the first front-line worker at VCU Medical Center to receive a vaccine aimed at defeating the virus.
“Very simply, I miss my family. I miss my mom,” said Audrey Roberson, who’s worked at VCU for 31 years and runs the hospital’s medical respiratory ICU, which treats the sickest COVID-19 patients.
“I’ve had very limited access to my mom over the last 10 months. She’s a breast cancer survivor for eight years, so I’m here for her and my family. I’m also here for my work family, to let them know that we can do this.”
Amid skepticism of a vaccine made in record time, especially among Black communities that have faced centuries of abuse within the health care system, Roberson’s livestreamed injection was a message — a reflection of the trust in a vaccination needed to control the virus.
As a Black woman, Roberson said she understood the legacy of experimentation on people of color and the barriers that history has established while the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history unfurls.
“I am here to say that I do trust what has been done,” said Roberson, who is a nurse scientist and holds a doctorate. “We are here to support this community, and we will not let them down.”
Gov. Ralph Northam looked on while six other front-line workers joined Roberson in receiving one of the 3,800 vaccinations allotted to VCU. The group included Dr. Robert Winn, the director of VCU Massey Cancer Center; Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, an infectious disease specialist; and Dr. Lisa Brath, who leads VCU’s division of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine.
“The current death rate in our country is 3,000 deaths per day,” Brath said. “In the 30 minutes of this press conference, 60 people will die. I personally don’t think we can overestimate the impact of this vaccine, not just in saving lives but getting our lives back together. … This is what’s going to keep me on top of my game in the next couple of months.”
As of Wednesday, 16,185 health care workers in Virginia have tested positive for COVID-19 and 31 people in health care settings have died.
The state’s first round of vaccinations — 72,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are now rolling out across Virginia — prioritizes health care workers and long-term care staff and residents. A second dose will be administered three weeks after the initial injection. To achieve the 95% efficacy rate, two doses are required.
The general population in Virginia is estimated to be eligible for vaccination by midsummer. Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner, has said repeatedly that the vaccine will not be mandatory. Roughly 75% of the population must be vaccinated for communities to resist spread.
In the meantime, health officials urge residents not to abandon social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, especially during a holiday season in which people continue to travel despite health officials advising against doing so.
Alongside mistrust among some communities, health care systems are facing an inundation of misinformation, said Art Kellermann, the CEO of VCU Health System.
Dr. Janice Underwood, Virginia’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said during an online forum hosted by the Virginia Department of Health on Tuesday that rumors targeting Black and Latino populations have run rampant in recent weeks.
“Don’t believe the garbage that you hear on the web,” Kellermann said. “Trust authoritative sources. Trust the people who put their lives on the line every day and every night who have researched this work. Not somebody who has a Twitter account. … If we stand together, we’ll kick COVID’s butt too.”
The next VDH webinar on how to build trust and navigate misinformation regarding COVID-19 vaccines will be Thursday at 3 p.m.