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CORONAVIRUS

R.I. doctor, awaiting his second vaccine dose, warns that ‘We’re really in the tsunami of this pandemic’

Be hopeful but vigilant, says Dr. Christian Arbelaez, the first person to be inoculated in the state

Christian Arbelaez, an emergency room doctor, got his COVID-19 vaccination at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence on Dec. 14.
Christian Arbelaez, an emergency room doctor, got his COVID-19 vaccination at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence on Dec. 14.CODY O'LAUGHLIN/NYT

PROVIDENCE — For Dr. Christian Arbelaez, the two weeks since he became the first person in Rhode Island to receive the COVID-19 vaccine have showed him that there is both light at the end of the tunnel in the pandemic and a dark road ahead.

The emergency medicine physician at Rhode Island Hospital said his goal is to inspire others, especially in the Latino community, to get vaccinated. And it didn’t take long after his first shot in the arm was aired live on cable news before he started getting questions about his experience. He’d calmly explain that the only symptom he had was mild soreness in his arm. He is confident he convinced some skeptics to get the vaccine.

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But Arbelaez also experienced the heartbreak that has become all too normal during this pandemic. Several family members in Colombia, where he was born, recently tested positive for the virus. His aunt’s husband died. More than 70,000 deaths were recorded worldwide in the first week after he got his first shot.

Now, as he prepares to get his second dose, on Saturday, Arbelaez wants the public to know that while it’s OK to be hopeful about the future, they must also remain vigilant about combatting a virus that isn’t ready to disappear.

“From a doctor’s perspective, it’s just been nothing but COVID,” Arbelaez said, referring to the patients he’s seen over the last few weeks. “It’s so sad to see these folks so sick, so lonely during the holidays. We’re really in the tsunami of this pandemic.”

In Rhode Island, more than 17,000 doses of vaccine have been administered, but the state has averaged 861 new cases a day since Arbelaez’s first shot, and 195 residents have died. Health officials hope to get 150,000 residents vaccinated over the next two months.

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Arbelaez received the Pfizer vaccine, which requires a second shot roughly 21 days after the first, plus or minus two days, according to Lifespan spokeswoman Kathleen Hart. The vaccine created by Moderna has a 28-day window.

Immediately after patients receive the first dose they are monitored for symptoms for 15 minutes by a health professional. During that time, they also schedule their second dose.

Arbelaez said he’s been proudly wearing a sticker on his work badge that he was given after his first dose, and he intends to continue wearing it after he gets the second shot. He said he hopes it will remind others to be inoculated.

Before he gets his second shot, Arbelaez said he’ll celebrate his 47th birthday on New Year’s Eve by eating junk food at home with his wife and their four children. But Saturday can’t come soon enough.

“It’s going to be a nice birthday present,” he said.


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