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Dr. Isabel Escobar, a professor in UK’s College of Engineering, receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine through the faculty outreach in mid-January. “Side effects: slightly sore arm and A LOT OF HOPE!!!” wrote Dr. Escobar on Twitter after receiving her first dose on Jan. 13, 2021. Photo provided by Escobar.

Surprise. Confusion. Relief; then elation.

These are the emotions that those chosen by UK to receive the COVID-19 vaccine cycled through upon learning they would get the shot.

“I was so excited that I couldn't understand so I just stopped. I had to drink some water, breathe and read it again so that I could actually comprehend what I was reading. And I remember just immediately wanting to text my husband in tears,” said Dr. Isabel Escobar, a professor in the chemical engineering department at UK, of her first reaction.

On Jan. 13, UK sent emails to a select number of faculty, staff and students inviting them to make an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Many chose to get it that same day at one of several temporary locations (within a week UK would open its centralized vaccine clinic at Kroger Field). The university has not released data on the number and breakdown of employees vaccinated.

Escobar was one of the first faculty to receive her vaccine on Jan. 13 and said she spent much of the morning before her shot crying from relief and excitement.

Tears are not an uncommon reaction to what many call “a shot of hope”; Dr. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences, said she cried tears of joy getting her vaccine.

“It's so many people, scientists, have worked to develop this vaccine in a man in a timely fashion and that is incredible. And just this pandemic, to be able to try to combat it and do our little part right as individual by taking the vaccine that has been developed. It was an overwhelming moment,” Garneau-Tsodikova said.

After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, getting vaccinated against the disease that has upended our lives is not only a matter of public health, but an act that highlights each person’s personal pandemic story.

For Escobar, the ease and speed with which she got her vaccine brought up the struggles her family faced getting her parents, 88 and 73, vaccinated.

They live in Florida, where a chaotic vaccine rollout has left officials scrambling. Escobar spent an hour on the phone with them in December to get their information and answer a complex questionnaire. Fortunately, she was able to sign them both up and they got their first doses on Jan. 12, 2021.

“There is still the whole logistic of how I was going to be able to see them because I have asthma and fairly severe asthma. So how are we going to make that happen?” Escobar said. Little did she know, the next day she would receive her own vaccine and her family could start a countdown to seeing each other again.

Garneau-Tsodikova said that as a member of the College of Pharmacy she feels it is important to lead by example.

“It's not time to just go back and pretending that nothing is happening. I haven’t seen my family since Christmas 2019,” Garneau-Tsodikova said. “At some point I would love to go, but I will wait until the pandemic is done. I think to me what's more important what I hope more with the vaccine is that healthcare providers and healthcare professionals will be able to get to the real break sooner rather than later.”

Her colleagues and students have been a core part of UK’s vaccine efforts and COVID response.

“I've seen my colleagues work tremendously during this whole pandemic, and they've been terrific in helping like with the hand sanitizer and helping with the vaccine,” Garneau-Tsodikova said.

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Dr. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova, a professor of pharmaceutical science at UK, took a picture after getting her first dose of the vaccine on Jan. 13, 2021. “I might only be 1 person, but I’ll do all I can to protect others!” she wrote on Twitter. Photo provided by Garneau-Tsodikova. 

Those in healthcare colleges are not the only ones paying their vaccine good forward.

Jannell McConnell Parsons, a graduate student and instructor in the English department at UK, has signed up to participate in a study on how vaccines impact nursing mothers.

“My daughter was born during the pandemic, and I am still nursing. So I'm really excited to get the vaccine for that reason, too, I'm hoping to be able to pass on some passive antibodies to her, because she's not able to get them yet,” McConnell Parsons said.

She received the vaccine on Jan. 13, which she called “surreal.”

“It's been forever that we've been in this mess. The vaccine at this point is the only way out,” McConnell Parsons said.

History proves that vaccines can bring a disease to heel, a lesson that journalism professor Scoobie Ryan has witnessed firsthand.

Ryan was five years old when the polio vaccine came out; until then, her family did everything possible to avoid the disease that gave her uncle, Jack, a life-long limp. Neither Ryan nor her siblings were allowed to play outside, and she still remembers how quickly her family took advantage of the new vaccine.

“When they announced it was available, we walked up to the high school. And they had these tables, filled with little plastic lines […] and they had sugar cubes in them. Vaccine was squirted on them and they didn't keep records, they didn't do anything. It was, ‘get in line. Get a sugar cube,’” Ryan described. “My uncle Jack was one of the volunteers passing them out. And I remember my daddy just cried, he was so relieved. They looked at it like, I'm not going to lose my kids because people at that time were still dying.”

That experience made Ryan a life-long believer in vaccines, keeping her kids up to date on shots. Now, she urges everyone who is eligible to sign up for a vaccine.

“If anyone gets an email that says ‘do you want it?’, jump on it. Make your appointment and go, because it's not like there's lots of it lying around out there,” Ryan said. She has left her house less than 10 times since March. Though the isolation has been difficult, she plans to stay inside still.

“I'm going to be super cautious. Super cautious because I just know how easy it is to get to contract this I mean, you know, a couple of former students have gotten it,” Ryan said.

Garneau-Tsodikova affirmed that people should not let their guard down just because vaccines are available.

“It's not because we're getting the vaccine that we should stop masking up, it's not because we're getting the vaccine that we should stop social distancing. It's important to keep all the precaution until we've combated this pandemic.”

Still, the vaccine offers hope to UK employees that they can move forward and one day, back to normal.

Escobar, who is conducting research on COVID-19 and masks, said she has three students whose faces she has never seen.

“The other day I saw one of them a Zoom without a mask. And I looked at him and I said ‘oh my gosh you have a beard, and I had no idea you had a beard,” Escobar said. She hopes that vaccines will get us to a point where “you're not scared of being around people and people are not scared of being around you.”

UK’s vaccine process was commended by many; Ryan called it “amazingly simple” and “absolutely impressive.”

The initial email rollout was flawed by confusing language. The email was tagged UK Healthcare, so recipients were initially confused on if the invite was meant for them.

“I thought this is a mistake but I'm going to sign up, and if they tell me no well, that's fine but I signed up,” Ryan said.

UK soon clarified the invites through email and Twitter, stating that yes, the invite was real and yes, non-healthcare employees can get the vaccine.

I didn't expect to be invited to get it so quickly,” said Ren Young, a sophomore computer science major. “I figured it would be a few months before I could get it as a, as a young person with no like health issues. But I was also excited. It’s a big step forward and it makes me feel like I can be a little safer.”

Escobar, who gets notifications for each update from UK, said she knew the vaccines were coming to staff but didn’t expect it to happen quite so fast, only two days after Capilouto’s announcement that plans were in the works.

“It said that the email might go to the junk folder, so to always pay attention and look into the junk folder. Literally after reading that I went through my junk folder and I looked at every single email for the of the past couple of weeks to make sure that it wasn't there,” Escobar said.

Others, like McConnell Parsons, heard about the vaccines for UK employees on social media first and then found their invite in their inbox. She knew she would sign up as soon as it was offered to her so quickly responded.

When the initial confusion over the vaccine invite faded, some recipients found it replaced with guilt.

“I hate that it got offered to me and not to some of my colleagues. The tricky part is that it's been unclear, there hasn't been a lot of transparency on why the invites went out to who they went to today. I understand it's a huge complex process. At this point, maybe the most important thing is to just get the vaccines in many arms as possible we don't want the vaccines to go to waste,” McConnell Parsons said.

As a student, Young said they felt like they were cutting in line, especially with friends whose parents are educators and had not gotten their vaccine yet.

“I think that's part of why I was so confused as to why I got it I got the email about it. I figured there was a lot more people ahead of me, that should be getting in first,” Young said.

Young works in horticulture research at UK, which may be why they qualified.

UK had said they would prioritize employees in healthcare colleges, research settings, frontline positions and those over 65. However, not everyone who received the vaccine fell under those categories and some were unsure why they were selected.

“I am old,” Ryan said. “But I have no idea what the criteria was, and I don't think I was the oldest person in line. There were other people who may have been around my age, but there were a lot of younger people.”

Garneau-Tsodikova does research but does not teach in-person. Escobar thinks her in-person classes and health condition might be why she was chosen for the vaccine.

“Asthma is not one of the top underlying conditions. It's kind of one of the secondaries, but I fall into the severe asthma category. So I don't know if that's played a role, but the teaching, definitely,” Escobar said.

McConnell Parsons said she doesn’t know why she was selected because she is teaching online only.

“I know at least one other person who got the email at the same time as me is also signed up to teach online,” she said. “So that doesn't seem to be the reason.”

McConnell Parsons added that she hopes UK is more transparent about who is getting vaccines moving forward.

“I hope that it's getting offered, not just to faculty and staff and instructors, but that it's getting offered to employees as well, because they've been the ones who have been in person this whole time,” she said.

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Not all students who were vaccinated meet the criteria, but vaccinating students can help with overall case load.

“When students return to campus, there are a large number of them, they tend to live in close proximity to each other and tend to be very mobile and active in our communities and so from that standpoint, having them vaccinated is beneficial,” said Dr. Ashley Montgomery-Yates, assistant chief medical officer for UKHC during a media briefing on Jan. 19.

Those who have gotten their vaccine are rare enough to be considered lucky, a fact of which they’re fully aware. But many vaccine recipients also wish their good luck could be given to their loved ones instead.

“My mom is actually going through chemotherapy for breast cancer right now. And in a heartbeat, I would give her my vaccine because she is way more at risk than me. She needs it more than me, but it doesn't work that way. Like that's in theory. I wish, but she's in another state and it’s not rolling out there yet,” McConnell Parsons said, adding that she hopes her own vaccination is a layer of protection for her mother.

Despite the initial snag, vaccine recipients said both the sign-up process and actual vaccination were quick, easy and well-organized.

“I was really impressed by how smooth and efficient and friendly, and how safe, not just the vaccine but how safe getting the vaccination was,” Garneau-Tsodikova said. “If I could have dreamt of a process that was the best, it would not have been as good as what I experienced. The staff was really friendly, we went through the drive-through and didn't have to go out of my car, it was very fast.”

Escobar said many of her friends reached out to compliment UK and say they wish their universities were doing the same.

“We're figuring out a way to roll out to the faculty so that we can start bringing classes in-person again to students. The more we do this, the faster we start vaccinating the faculty, the staff, the students, the better service we are doing and how they're jealous of the University of Kentucky,” Escobar said.

From what recipients saw, many of their colleagues took UK up on vaccinaton offers.

“People are definitely taking advantage of the opportunity,” McConnell Parsons said. “The folks that were giving the vaccines inside said there's really been an uptick in you know, folks coming in all the emails went out this afternoon.”

Vaccination selfies from UK employees soon hit the timeline.

“Yesterday and today, all that you see are just mainly faces holding the COVID card, you know, the vaccination card, or like mind showing the shots going and everyone is everyone I know is so happy that this is happening because we'll be able to teach again,” Escobar said. “There's just so many smiles.”

That hope, Escobar said, is the main side effect of the vaccine.