When Belza Betancur went into work last week, she had no idea she would make history as one of the first people in the country – and the first in the MGH system – to get the COVID-19 vaccine. On Wednesday morning, as a priority health care workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients for months, the Chelsea resident volunteered to be the first and got her first-round vaccination at the hospital during her shift.
It was a moment for her that seemed long-awaited, but soon the historic nature of it began to dawn on her. “At Mass General, they have a lot of diversity, so they wanted someone that represented the Latino population specifically because we’ve had probably 70 percent of our patients that are of Latin background,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it at all, but I was humbled and thrilled…It was a big moment. I don’t know if I still understand the full impact yet of it being history, but I was honored because of all we’ve gone through. It is history.
We’ve had pandemics before, but maybe not to this extent…I feel I now have a responsibility to make sure people do get vaccinated and give us a chance to end this. We all need to get back to a normal life. It was a historic moment, and I feel that way about it too.” For Betancur and her co-workers at the Blake 12 ICU unit at Mass General’s main campus, the vaccine could not come soon enough as they have spent the last 10 months caring for COVID-19 patients to the best of their ability.
The challenges were monumental, but it was something she said she signed up for. “This is what we signed up for,” she said, noting that she also cared for several injured people in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2014. “I care a lot about people’s health and doing my best for them. It has been very challenging…With me, since all this happened, I have a headache every day when I come home from work. It comes with the job and it’s okay because at the end you see patients recover and you hear good news and they send you pictures. It makes you encouraged and we feel it’s all worth it.” Betancur came to Chelsea from Colombia, and got an Associates’ Degree in nursing from Northern Essex Community College. Then, while working at various medical facilities, she graduated from Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.
After stints at Elliot Hospital in New Hampshire, and at Beth Israel Hospital, she began working in the ICU at Blake 12 in 2012. When the pandemic hit last spring, Betancur said they often felt like they were in the bowels of the Titanic being thrown back and forth. She recalls April 11 as one of the most difficult days. On that day, they had to set up an expanded, temporary ICU unit. All of the equipment was there, but it wasn’t the same and became very difficult to take care of the surge of patients. It was at that time they were no longer just taking care of one patient, but two at a time. Or there was the time when a man from the community showed up early in the pandemic sick with COVID after having been required to go to work cleaning an office building. “One of his co-workers had COVID-19 because they were cleaning buildings and he couldn’t miss work and then he got COVID-19,” she said. “He ended up in the (ICU).
People had to go out there and go to work and no one knew about the protocols we know about now. I wish we had known the things we know now in the beginning of all this.” And so it is why Betancur and all of her colleagues have been waiting for the day the vaccine arrived, and why she jumped at being the first person vaccinated. She said she is confused by the skepticism in Chelsea, and said people need to educate themselves about it and make an informed decision based on the science and not hearsay. “I’m surprised by that and it makes me sad,” she said. “We were looking forward to this vaccine coming since it started. I feel like the more you know about the vaccine, the more at ease you feel about it. I was nervous at one point, but I educated myself on it and read three or four articles and understood what the science was behind it. I worried it was made so quickly, but now I understand it…They have been working on this type of vaccine for decades. It just so happens we are now using that technology for the virus.”
Betancur reiterated that she not only felt the history of the moment, but also feels the weight of convincing others in Chelsea to get the vaccine if they might be skeptical – or simply just to put them at ease. She said she will get the second “booster” shot in about 21 days, and they say it takes three weeks to build up full immunity. Still, she will take the precautions that she has been taking for the past 10 months. Until about 70 to 80 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, it is suggested that people continue to wear masks and follow the safety protocols.
She will do that, but said she looks forward to a day when people don’t have to wear masks in Chelsea – when you can go into a restaurant on Broadway at ease and without being six feet apart. “Imagine the day we don’t have to wear masks?” she said. “It is the right thing to do right now. You have to protect yourself, and by doing that you’re protecting others too. In my case, I thought more about the community and protecting my patients as well.”