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ISMS Member Making a Difference in the Fight Against COVID-19
Posted on: 3/4/2021

Dr. Kataria works as a volunteer at a COVID-19 vaccination site.

ISMS caught up with ISMS member Tripti C. Kataria, MD, MPH, to speak with her about her volunteer work vaccinating the general public. Dr. Kataria is an anesthesiologist practicing in Chicago and currently serves as chair of the ISMS Governmental Affairs Council.

You recently tweeted that you felt like you were finally making a difference in the fight against COVID-19. Could you elaborate?

I’m an office-based anesthesiologist so my practice is different than many of my colleagues. I am not on the frontlines and when all elective procedures ceased, my practice essentially stopped for a while.

During the COVID-19 crisis, I worked on the policy side, such as chairing the ISMS Governmental Affairs Council, advocating on pressing needs important to physicians, and encouraging the governor to act on various issues. I was looking at the different policies to ensure that physicians were protected, such as encouraging the governor to ensure that there was medical liability coverage during the COVID-19 crisis.

I’m a hands-on doer but I felt like I wasn’t there on the frontlines. I was there to support my colleagues “in the backroom,” but I wasn’t the ER doctor, I wasn’t the ICU physician, I wasn’t among my anesthesiologist colleagues in the thick of the fight, working the long hours in the hospital. So I decided to volunteer at vaccination sites.

What was it like vaccinating the general public during a pandemic?

It was really inspirational for me to educate the public and administer vaccines! This is the first time as a physician that I could do something to truly fight against the pandemic by ensuring that hopefully all of the individuals that I am placing that shot in their arms will be safe going forward from this deadly disease.

Some people came in scared. Who likes needles? I was giving the vaccine to people receiving the first COVID-19 vaccine.  Although they were nervous, I was joking and laughing with them … and distracting them. I wanted to take away their anxiety and fear and have them go away thinking the shot was not that bad – because they have to come back for another shot in three weeks!

How did your training as an anesthesiologist help you when vaccinating the public on the frontlines?

I found my background as an anesthesiologist very helpful. Anesthesiologists are used to seeing people coming in anxious. They will be undergoing surgery and so there is that anxiety. So I’ve found that those skills I have in working with anxious patients were very helpful in vaccinating people. I tried to create a situation that would make it as pleasant as it could be under the circumstances and to provide a sense for them that they’re doing a good thing not only for themselves, but also for society as a whole.

It’s so satisfying to me on a very personal level. They are getting the vaccine that they need but they’re giving me so much more than just inoculating them.

At times, you also helped to “make” the liquid gold, or as you call it, liquid platinum. What was that experience like for you preparing the vaccine?

Yes, these days platinum is worth more than gold!

I had that opportunity to prepare the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has to be made on site. Basically, we reconstitute it. On one shift, I worked with a pharmacist and a nurse to prepare hundreds of doses of vaccine.

If you are preparing the vaccine on site, how do you know how much will be needed?

There’s kind of like a dance that goes on, with constant communication between those preparing the vaccine and those organizing the flow of people. The last hour is really interesting. How many more people are scheduled? How many are waiting? How many open vaccines do we have? In addition, it takes 30 minutes to thaw the vaccine to room temperature. So sometime people have to actually wait for the vaccine to be prepared.

You don’t ever want to waste any of it because that’s what is getting into people’s arms. This is what is giving us the chance to get some more normalcy back into our lives. There is almost a reverence for the vaccine and how important it is.

Where have you volunteered so far?

I’m volunteering through the Chicago Department of Public Health. I vaccinate people from all walks of life: younger people, older people, policemen, firemen, and home healthcare workers. It was also so heartwarming that there was such a variety of the population – exactly what you would expect to see of those who make up Chicago.

Is there extra security at the site for the vaccine supply?

At the end of the day, the Chicago Police Department came to pick up any unused vaccine, wearing fatigues and carrying guns. They picked up the box of vaccine to be brought back to the cold storage under lock and key.

There’s this whole underground market. The police are the guardians of our vaccines!

If physicians ask you about volunteering to administer vaccines, what would you tell them?

Definitely do it. As the amount of vaccine becomes more readily available from the federal government, more people will be needed to volunteer to vaccinate the general public.

I would encourage anyone who is interested to sign up on Illinois Helps. In Chicago, you can also become a part of the Chicago Medical Reserve Corps. For those not in Chicago, there are other Medical Reserve Corps in different counties throughout the state.

Sign up now as there is a bit of paperwork and a background check to get through first.

Any closing thoughts?

We owe physicians and healthcare workers a debt of gratitude for all of their sacrifices over the last year. It never ceases to amaze me about the depth of commitment that physicians give to their patients. Not only do they have resilience, but the innovation that has come forward over the last year has been inspirational. I know that we have lost 500,000 people. If it were not for our health professionals’ dedication and innovation, it would be even more.

I am in awe of them and volunteering at vaccination sites is just a small way that I can give back relative to all of the sacrifices my physician colleagues have already made over the last year.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Kataria! 

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