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NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca Recounts Coronavirus Vaccination Experience


NPR's Joe Palca has covered the coronavirus before global health authorities declared a pandemic and even before the disease got its name, COVID-19. Now he has been vaccinated.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: For me, it's hard to believe, but I did my first story about making a vaccine for COVID-19 a year ago - January 29, 2020. For that story, I did an interview with Richard Hatchett. He's head of something called CEPI, an organization committed to preparing for global epidemics. I confess I was surprised, maybe even skeptical, when Hatchett said this.


RICHARD HATCHETT: We are making very aggressive efforts in the hopes of having some form of vaccine available as early as the fall.

PALCA: Make a vaccine in eight months? Everybody knows it takes years to create a vaccine, test it, manufacture it and get it to people. But Hatchett was pretty close. And here I was, one year later, on January 21, 2021, at a makeshift clinic at the MedStar Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C., about to get my first injection of a vaccine made by Pfizer.

DIA: My name is Dia (ph). I'll be taking care of you today.

PALCA: Hi, Dia.

I qualified for the vaccine because I'm older than 65 and a D.C. resident. The D.C. Department of Health has vaccines. My doctor at Georgetown told me they had them, too. Georgetown could see me sooner, so I went there.

It's a tricky business managing vaccine distribution when demand is far exceeding supply. Christina Hughes is coordinating the vaccine distribution for MedStar Health.

CHRISTINA HUGHES: We are very meticulous about planning for appointments when we know that we have the vaccine in hand to be able to provide it to our - either associates or the community.

PALCA: Hughes says it's a balancing act. They're careful to only take what they need out of the special freezers required to store the Pfizer vaccine, and they keep a list of standbys in case people don't show up for their appointments. I had a question a lot of people seemed to be wondering about.

You have a certain number of doses for this week to give people their first shot. How confident are you that in three weeks, you're going to have an adequate number of doses to give people their second shot?

HUGHES: We are confident.

PALCA: Hughes says the second doses are preordered, so they know they'll have enough. I guess it works because when it came time for my second shot, they were ready.

DIA: There you go.

PALCA: Thank you very much.

DIA: You're welcome.

PALCA: The shot didn't hurt at all, and a mildly sore arm was the only side effect. So now I'm fully vaccinated. But for the moment, NPR wants everyone who can to continue to work from home, so I'll be staying here in my basement storeroom - excuse me, home studio. I've been telling NPR's audience that vaccines will be a key part of ending the pandemic. I guess now I'm part of proving whether that's true.

Joe Palca, NPR News.


Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.