by Dora Anne Mills

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth, and formerly director of Maine Center for Disease Control, shared her reflections about the day the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in Maine, a date to remember – December 15, 2020.

It’s December, the darkest month of the year. And this must be the darkest December in modern history. A disease that did not have a name or a record a year ago was the leading cause of death in this country last week. Maine has fortunately fared relatively well, but we are in the middle of a deadly surge, with intensive care units filled, and people getting sick and dying at alarming rates. When someone dies unexpectedly, the first thing you think of is COVID. And there have been many unexpected deaths. All of us know people whom we’ve lost to this disease.

Notable anniversaries have reminded me of how dark these times are. December 1st, World AIDS Day, reminded me of the first pandemic in my career, with some haunting similarities to our current pandemic. But now the AIDS pandemic has been eclipsed by another pandemic – COVID and its parallel pandemic of misinformation and anger.

Last Friday night, news broke that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued authorization for the Pfizer vaccine. Yesterday morning at 7:30 a.m., we received word that the vaccine had arrived under police escort at Maine Medical Center, our tertiary care center with over 12,000 employees, many of whom have been caring for most of Maine’s sickest COVID-19 patients for the last 10 months. By 9 a.m., several of our COVID-19 intensive care unit nurses were receiving their vaccines. We felt the vaccine to be such an urgent matter that we made sure we could start vaccinating as soon as possible. The clinic ended at 10:30 p.m.

I was sitting in my office late morning when the photo came across my email of one of Maine’s top infectious disease physicians vaccinating a COVID-19 intensive care unit nurse, our first COVID-19 vaccine administered, and the first vaccine in Maine. My eyes welled up with tears. In the midst of a dark December there is light, and there is hope.

A steady stream of nurses and other frontline heroes walked through to get vaccinated. They talked about the vaccine helping to lift a cloud of fear they’ve been living under – fear of bringing COVID home to their loved ones, fear of losing yet another patient, fear of getting sick themselves. They talked about the vaccine shining hope, as well as lifting the cloud.

Although COVID will continue to ravage and rage, and even years from now, it will likely surreptitiously slither across the globe, the vaccine is our ticket to more normalcy.

A couple of years ago, I found a fairly plain-looking Christian Bible with a black leather cover among my mother’s belongings. I opened it to find it was from my mother’s parents. My grandparents were potato farmers in northern Maine. They’d lost much of their farm during the Depression. But they never lost their optimistic spirit and their faith. The Bible was a gift to my parents, Christmas 1941. A message of hope from another very dark December. Although it would be another five arduous years marked with untold sacrifices, and would well after the V Day celebrations (V-E Day and V-J Day) until my parents could return to their quaint lives in a small town in Maine, my grandparents and parents held and gave the gifts of faith and hope.

December 15, 2020, was a historic and monumental day in Maine. It was our V Day, Vaccine Day. Somehow now those recent anniversaries don’t seem so bleak. They even convey to us some gifts from the past. Somewhere under my frozen garden, there are daffodils percolating. My home is lit with candles. I now clench some seeds of faith and hope.