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A Latino doctor was the first person in Rhode Island to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Now he wants to be an example for his community

The key to a normal return to life will be making sure everyone gets the vaccine, said Dr. Christian Arbelaez

Rhode Island health care workers receive first dose of COVID-19 vaccine
Rhode Island health care workers including Dr. Christian Arbelaez received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. (Video: SHELBY LUM/GLOBE STAFF, Photo: SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF)

PROVIDENCE – When Zully Arbelaez learned Monday that her son was going to be the first person in Rhode Island to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, she said a prayer for him.

Arbelaez, who brought her family from Colombia to the United States in 1984 and now lives in Houston, said she was “a little bit” nervous when Dr. Christian Arbelaez called with the news. Little did she know, the vaccine would be administered to him live on MSNBC.

But she beamed with pride once it was over, and just like her son — the first in his family to go to college, the doctor who has watched thousands of patients fall ill from this virus and too many of them die — she immediately thought about others. Her message: Go get the vaccine.


“It’s better this than the virus,” Zully Arbelaez said during a brief telephone interview.

For those watching, the shot — which Dr. Arbelaez took in the left arm — looked similar to the thousands of flu shots administered every day in Rhode Island. But the 46-year-old emergency room physician said he’s hopeful that he can set an example for the Latino community, which has been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus.

“We’ve been the most affected,” he said. “It’s very important that we are being prioritized.”

More than 74,000 Rhode Island residents have tested positive for the virus this year, and 1,555 have died. In most weeks, Latinos are two or three times as likely to become infected, and cities with large Latino communities such as Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Providence have had by far the highest case numbers in the state for the last 10 months.

Arbelaez, who lives in Jamaica Plain, is the vice chair of academic affairs at Brown Emergency Medicine at Rhode Island, Hasbro Children’s, The Miriam, and Newport hospitals. He received his medical degree from the University of Texas, completed his residency in the Brown Emergency Medicine program, and earned a master’s degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.


He acknowledged that minority communities have shown the most reluctance about getting the vaccine, but he wants them to know that it is safe and highly effective. He said the key to a normal return to life will be making sure everyone gets the vaccine.

“Please get the vaccine,” he pleaded with Rhode Island residents, minutes after getting the shot inside the Gerry House at Rhode Island Hospital on Monday. He explained that he expects to feel mild symptoms as his body prepares to fight the virus. He’ll receive the second dose of the vaccine next month.

Lifespan which runs Rhode Island, Hasbro Children’s, The Miriam, Bradley, and Newport hospitals, received 1,950 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine on Monday morning, several hours ahead of schedule. Shortly after Lifespan received the shipment, the Rhode Island COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee voted to recommend that hospitals begin vaccinating front-line hospital workers.

In addition, hospital staff who have direct contact with COVID-positive patients or COVID-positive infectious fluids or materials are first in line for the vaccine, and the state expects to have 10,750 doses delivered to all nine of Rhode Island’s hospitals by the end of the week. The second person to get vaccinated was Fernando Pires, 60, of East Providence, who has worked in housekeeping for Lifespan for more than two decades.


Pires said he has watched too many patients die to be afraid of the vaccine.

“I thought, let me get this shot before it happens to me,” Pires said.

Health professionals were overjoyed with the arrival of the vaccine, as many doctors and nurses remember they had just as many questions about the virus as the patients did as recently as a few months ago. Lifespan president Dr. Timothy J. Babineau said the first patient was admitted in February, and employees have been working nonstop since.

“Christmas came early here at Lifespan,” Babineau said.

Health care workers are not required to receive the vaccine, but Babineau said they are being “strongly encouraged” to do so. Babineau said he plans to get the vaccine in a few months, after Lifespan has offered it to front-line employees.

As he stood at a podium and discussed the vaccine, Arbelaez said he was “filled with adrenaline,” but he began to choke up when he mentioned he had just spoken to his mom. Like a lot of Latino families, their household is multigenerational, as his sister still lives with Zully. He encouraged her to get the vaccine as soon as possible.

Back in Houston, Zully was almost speechless.

“I’m so happy,” she said.

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.