The UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill was one of the first hospitals to receive the approved Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19. With a shipment arriving Tuesday morning, hospital staff began vaccinating front line workers in the afternoon.

Loc Culp is the nurse manager for the UNC Medical Center’s medical intensive care unit and said she was the first person at the hospital to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Since March, Culp has seen her unit transform into the area where some of the most serious COVID-19 cases are sent. She qualified to be one of the first vaccine recipients, since she’s a health care worker who regularly experiences high-risk exposure to the virus.

Culp said Tuesday her perspective from the UNC Medical Center makes her thankful a new tool to fight COVID-19 has arrived. With many hospital beds full of coronavirus patients, providers have sometimes struggled to find space for those who need other services and resources.

“The vaccine couldn’t have come at a better time,” she said, “because our patients are so sick right and our hospitals are so crowded. It’s pretty distressing not being able to take care of everybody, take care of what we have right here [in the community.]”

Including Culp, 30 staff members at the UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough received vaccinations on Tuesday. 2,500 doses will be distributed at the hospital over the next week, as well as thousands of others at UNC Health locations across North Carolina.

Jorge Gutierrez, a Spanish interpreter who’s working primarily in the MICU, also received a shot on Tuesday. He said getting the vaccine made it “an amazing day” because it helps protect him during bedside work with Spanish-speaking coronavirus patients, something he says he’s developed a new appreciation for.

“One of the things this [pandemic] has shown us is the importance of having someone who speaks your language helping you communicate at the bedside with providers. It’s something you cannot substitute that easily or complete with the telemedicine efforts we’ve seen happening here.”

While these initial vaccine doses are limited and will largely be for health care workers and long-term care patients, Infectious Disease Physician Dr. David Wohl said it will have an impact. He said no drop in new cases will be immediately seen but will help health care workers be encouraged as they continue caring for patients.

“I think it offers hope where things have been darkened,” said Wohl, who also received the vaccine on Tuesday. “The number of people who are sick, that Loc has to take care of and Jorge have to help with, has just grown tremendously and is dispiriting. I think, on the one hand, just having this ray of sunshine that this could lead us to the beginning of the end, is critical.”

UNC Health is not making getting a COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for its staff. But Culp said her nurses are ready to roll up their sleeves.

“I don’t see any hesitancy,” she said. “A lot of my staff are just waiting for when they will get their chance to get the vaccine. We see what happens to our COVID-19 patients and it’s really hard being [in] the health care end and watching our patients go through this. So, my team is ready.”

Photo via UNC Health. does not charge subscription fees. You can support local journalism and our mission to serve the community. Contribute today – every single dollar matters.