‘We can finally see an end to the storm’: O.C. healthcare workers receive COVID-19 vaccine

Clinical pharmacist Stephanie Chao fills a syringe.
Clinical pharmacist Stephanie Chao fills a syringe with a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
Share via

For Dr. Robert Goldberg, the arrival of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is the ray of sunshine in a dark storm.

Goldberg, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, said that he and other healthcare workers have been waiting for so long. There’d been highs and lows during the course of the pandemic. At its start this spring, there’d been worries that the hospital might be busy and overrun with patients.

Then, cases seemed to decrease — until they didn’t.

The last few weeks have seen cases skyrocket in Orange County, which Goldberg said seemed to reach points higher than in March and April. But though it will be some time before the general public will be vaccinated, Goldberg thinks the arrival of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a start to fighting back against the pandemic.


“We can finally see an end to the storm,” Goldberg said.

Workers in education and childcare, emergency services and agriculture should receive COVID-19 vaccinations next, a state panel recommends.

Dec. 17, 2020

Goldberg, along with dozens other healthcare workers across Orange County, received the vaccine on Thursday after shipments arrived at area hospitals on Wednesday. Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian reported it received 1,950 doses to vaccinate its staff in Newport Beach and Irvine. Mission Hospital said it vaccinated more than 140 nurses and physicians at its campuses in Laguna Beach and Mission Viejo on Thursday.

Emergency room doctor Paula Gonella receives her first dose.
Emergency room Dr. Paula Gonella, left, receives her first dose of a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Gene Nguyen at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Dr. Michael Hurwitz, the chief of staff at Hoag, said that his staff and colleagues are “thrilled” to be vaccinated, and when they first put out the call to vaccinate for high-risk personnel — those seeing patients in the emergency room or intensive care units, for example — hospital workers couldn’t sign up fast enough.

“I think what I’m expressing is relief,” said Hurwitz, who will also be receiving the vaccine. “I think everybody is feeling that. People here at the hospital are really exposed to a wide cross-section of the public all day long. I think they feel safer. They feel like they’re being protected so they can do their important, critical work.”

“Frankly, I’m very relieved that the vaccine is here and that we now have an opportunity in the first place to protect critical healthcare personnel to take care of the community and I’m looking forward for people to be vaccinated, protect themselves so that we can get back to life as it was before the pandemic,” Hurwitz added.

Rapidly filling hospitals in Orange County have been ordered not to redirect ambulances from their emergency rooms to other medical facilities.

Dec. 17, 2020

California previously allocated about 327,000 doses and is expected to receive at least 1 million more by the end of the month between the additional 393,900 from Pfizer-BioNTech and 672,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, if it receives U.S. authorization as expected.

Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“I think the vaccine, for those of us taking care of patients ... as a healthcare provider right in the thick of it, I’m so grateful and excited,” said Dr. Nathan Gilmore, who works in the intensive care unit at Hoag and received the vaccine Thursday. “It’s a stressful time to be a doctor and a nurse and be in health care. Knowing you personally are at risk is one of the scariest parts. Having a vaccine now is such a relief.”

“It gives me a lot more confidence. I’m still going to wear [personal protective equipment] and social distance and respect the recommendations knowing the vaccine isn’t perfect,” he added. “But it is a relief to me and my family.”

An FDA advisory panel overwhelmingly recommends a second COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Moderna and the NIH, for emergency use.

Dec. 17, 2020

Gilmore said he feels right now is the biggest challenge for healthcare workers.

“The volumes of patients are higher than they ever have been,” Gilmore said. “We’re right at the edge of getting this vaccine, but we’re still medically challenged as we try to give every patient the best possible chance of survival — including all the other patients sick with other conditions ... and keep up with all that demand.”

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported Thursday that COVID-19 cases grew by another 2,615 and included 13 new deaths. Hospitalizations are up to 1,519 and 343 cases are now in intensive care units. Data reveals just 7.1% of adult beds are available.

Across Southern California, which the state defines as Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, the availability of intensive care unit beds has dropped to 0%.

The number of unoccupied beds in Southern California has steadily dropped as hospitals are flooded by unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 patients.

Dec. 17, 2020

“There are more people dying now than before and that’s going to get worse if we don’t continue to protect ourselves and our loved ones,” Gilmore said. “There’s no question that Thanksgiving gatherings happened. I’ve had patients that have died that caught COVID during Thanksgiving, that’ve died with all the medical treatments possible and they still didn’t make it.”

Gilmore said he wanted to warn citizens to abstain from attending Christmas parties or New Year’s celebrations this year, adding that hospitals would be able to adapt but that there were going to be some patients that wouldn’t make it no matter what physicians did.

“That can be prevented,” Gilmore said.

Hurwitz said that he wanted Orange County residents to take the opportunity to be vaccinated when it was made available.

“I know they’re worried about their personal safety and — from everything I’ve read and everything I’ve seen — the vaccine is safe,” Hurwitz said. “I think the fact that healthcare workers are stepping forward is a testament to that. The sooner we get everybody vaccinated, the sooner we get businesses back online and we get kids safely in school and we can return to a sense of normalcy.”

Here are the latest cumulative coronavirus case counts and COVID-19 deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 22,570 cases; 349 deaths
  • Anaheim: 19,262 cases; 371 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 4,622 cases; 94 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 3,730 cases; 49 deaths
  • Irvine: 4,149 cases; 19 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,803 cases; 28 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 1,413 cases; 24 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 409 cases; fewer than five deaths

Here are the case counts by age group, followed by deaths:

  • 0 to 17: 10,320 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 16,366 cases; four deaths
  • 25 to 34: 23,908 cases; 24 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 17,991 cases; 42 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 18,336 cases; 127 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 13,796 cases; 238 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 6,985 cases; 336 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 3,538 cases; 380 deaths
  • 85 and older: 2,479 cases; 579 deaths

Updated figures are posted daily at For information on getting tested, visit

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.