On Tuesday, health care workers at UT Health East Texas — one of the first to get the COVID-19 vaccine in December — received their second dose three weeks since the vaccination shipment came to the area.

Gary Viljoen, director of rehabilitation services at UT Health North Campus Tyler, was the first person in East Texas to receive the initial dose on Dec. 15. He said both the first and second doses went well and he had no problems.

“I would encourage everybody to come and get the vaccine once it’s available to them, not just to protect themselves but our community,” he said. “The quicker we can build up the so-called herd immunity, we can potentially go back to some form of normalcy, and I think everybody would like that very much.”

UT Heath East Texas workers received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is administered in two doses that are 21 days apart.

While excited about the vaccine, Viljoen noted the importance of continuing safety measures until herd immunity can be reached. Herd immunity occurs when about 70% of people are either vaccinated for a disease or have been exposed to a disease.

“It’s nice to know that we have a very powerful tool in our toolbox now,” Viljoen said. “However, we still need to wear our PPE at this stage and we need to continue with the social distancing and handwashing until we’ve reached herd immunity and until further guidance by the CDC.”

Longview resident Johnnita Young, pharmacy technician at UT Health Science Center at Tyler, said she barely felt the second or first shot, and she’s had no allergic reactions. She's encouraging family and friends to get the vaccine when the time comes.

“I’ve already got my mom on the list to go get her shot. I’ve told cousins and friends. You may have an allergic reaction, you may not have an allergic reaction, but you still need to get the vaccine,” Young said. “Everybody in my family have planned on getting it and I’ve got friends who plan on getting it.”

Young said she thinks most people are more scared about what they’re reading on Facebook about the vaccine.

“I ain’t had an ear fall off or grew a tail or anything like that since I got the shot. I hadn’t had any reaction to it,” she said. “It’s just a regular vaccine.”

Young added that she stills spaces out six feet apart from people and wears her mask while outside of her home. She said it’s been difficult to separate from family like her grandchildren during the pandemic.

“If you love your family and your friends, you need to get the vaccine,” she said.

Dr. Bola Olusola, a gastroenterologist, said he wants to set an example for patients and the community as he takes the vaccine.

“If I want to talk to my patients that they should get the vaccine, I think I should be able to say, ‘Yes I think you should get it. I’ve already gotten it,’” Olusola said. “I think most people have more confidence when you’re preaching the gospel that you believe it.”

Dr. Thomas Cummins, division chief medical officer for UT Health East Texas, said the shipment that UT Health received Tuesday will cover the second doses of the vaccine for caregivers. UT Health East Texas said it is only vaccinating its employees at this time, but the health system hopes to open up to at-risk categories of the general population when more supply comes in.

“Because COVID case numbers are surging across East Texas, we urge residents to continue to do the things we’ve been talking about since the beginning of the pandemic — wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings,” Cummins said. “We know these things work to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

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I came to the Tyler Morning Telegraph in September 2019. I report on crime, courts, breaking news and various events in Tyler and East Texas.