Dr. Christine Hein is an emergency department physician at Maine Medical Center in Portland and the sixth person at the hospital to recieve the new coronavirus vaccine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Veteran marathon runner and doctor Christine Hein is used to the stress that comes with a fast-paced life.

It is the norm for her as an emergency physician and chief wellness officer at Maine Medical Center in Portland — working for eight hours to treat patients suffering from strokes or severe injuries in the emergency department for an overnight shift, before shifting gears to teach classes or complete administrative work. The coronavirus pandemic kicked things into a higher gear, requiring more vigilance and an acute awareness of how vulnerable health care workers are.

That is why when Hein became the sixth person at the Portland hospital — and likely the state of Maine — to get a first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine Tuesday morning, she allowed herself to feel the first tendrils of hope that the pandemic could have an end date. But she does not see herself relaxing any time soon.

“It feels like one more step in the process,” Hein, 45, said. “But it certainly does not feel like it’s time to take my mask off.”

The first vaccine doses began arriving in the state Monday, with vaccinations at Maine Medical Center starting Tuesday. Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and its Portland affiliate, Northern Light Mercy Hospital, expect to begin inoculating their frontline staff members Wednesday. The first vaccinations come as Maine regularly sees 400-plus new coronavirus cases a day, setting records for new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

A painted rock with a thank you message for health care workers sits on a concrete wall outside Maine medical Center in Portland on Tuesday Dec. 15, 2020. Inside the hospital, the first doses of the new coronavirus are being administered. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination plan, aligned with federal guidelines, prioritizes frontline health care workers who work closely with coronavirus patients. Because there are so far few available vaccine doses, health care systems have to prioritize which of those workers get the vaccine first. The idea is to keep the state’s medical infrastructure afloat as cases climb so health care workers can continue to treat the sick.

Those workers are an at-risk group. As of Monday, anyone who identifies as a health care worker — hospital staffers, emergency responders, long-term care facility employees and others — made up 12 percent of the more than 16,000 coronavirus cases Maine has seen, Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long said. Shortages of personal protective gear early in the pandemic heightened their risks of exposure.

Nationally, hundreds of health care workers have died after getting the virus. It’s impossible to get a precise count because reporting of health care workers’ deaths is inconsistent state to state.

Hein said she is acutely aware of the toll the virus can take on her colleagues. She said employees around her have become sick, although they recovered. She has known others outside her hospital who have not.

“My heart goes out to the people who have lost family and friends, who have been so severely impacted by this,” she said.

As Maine Medical Center’s chief wellness officer, Hein was concerned about burnout before the pandemic. Although the hospital had time to plan for its arrival, the initial surge was “all-encompassing,” and Hein said that initial sense of preparedness had turned to weariness by the summer.

“There was just this sense of not knowing when this was going to end,” she said. Worries about how much personal protective equipment would be available have made that uncertainty worse.

The second, sustained surge in cases Maine began experiencing in the fall was disheartening, but Hein said she felt less helpless than she did in the springtime. The health care industry’s understanding of the virus had increased — and there was talk of a vaccine on the horizon.

If not for that, “It would feel like you were going back to zero,” she said.

Before she received the first dose, Hein said she wanted to understand the research around the vaccine and its potential side effects. She also felt a strong need to protect vulnerable patients and her five children and husband, who had helped her through the difficult portions of the pandemic.

Hein said she knows the work is not done yet. She’s not due for her second dose of the vaccination for another three weeks. And the vaccine is unlikely to be available to the general public until spring of next year at the earliest. Even then, uncertainties, such as whether someone who is vaccinated can still asymptomatically transfer the virus, mean basic virus-prevention efforts such as social distancing will have to persist.

Right now, however, Hein feels as if she can offer her patients and colleagues a little light at the end of the tunnel. And after completing around 40 marathons, Hein is used to pushing through pain.

“It feels like the point where you go, ‘OK, you’re tired,’” Hein said. “But you have to keep going.”

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