A lead clinical nurse in the COVID-19 unit at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center was among the first health care staff in Long Beach to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Friday, bringing hope for thousands of essential workers as the pandemic rages.

Rolling down his left sleeve after receiving the shot, nurse Brandon Gatling said he was honored and humbled to be chosen. Gatling said he and others at Memorial have felt the strain of the pandemic, but they “continue to do what we need to do every day.”

I’m so very excited and honestly it didn’t even bother me, it was just another vaccine,” he said. “Hopefully now that the vaccine is here we can start to move forward and look towards an end.”

Mayor Robert Garcia, in a news conference outside Memorial, said the day was both hopeful and sobering.

“That brings us a lot of hope but at the same time we are in a very serious place,” Garcia said.

As of Thursday, Long Beach has seen 311 deaths from the pandemic, while the percentage of available intensive care unit beds in the city’s five area hospitals has dropped to 10%, according to Garcia.

“That number is dangerously close to being overwhelmed by our other area hospitals that are close to full,” he said. “It really is a crisis across the entire state of California.”

Officials said the city’s five area hospitals—St. Mary Medical Center, Long Beach Memorial, College Hospital, Lakewood Regional Medical Center and Los Alamitos Medical Center—each received 975 doses of the vaccine that will be distributed over the next few days.

Priority will be given to nurses, physicians and health care workers that come into contact with COVID patients. 

The mayor, who lost both of his parents to COVID earlier this year, noted that Long Beach Memorial was where his mother Gaby O’Donnell spent her last days.

“As a health worker herself, I know she would have been in front of the line receiving this vaccine,” he said.

Long Beach received the Pfizer-manufactured doses on Thursday and is expecting thousands more of a Moderna vaccine by the end of the month. The Moderna vaccine is expected to be distributed in nursing homes beginning Dec. 28.

Los Angeles County also began vaccinating its workers early Friday, and officials said at a press conference they expect to vaccinate 10,000 health care workers, about a third of the staff who work at Department of Health Services facilities, by the end of the calendar year.

“The scope and scale of what we’re doing is unprecedented,” said Dr. Paul Giboney, the county’s associate chief medical officer who is leading the county vaccination effort.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses distributed 21 days apart, while Moderna’s vaccine is 28 days apart.

For the thousands of essential workers who will receive the vaccine in Long Beach over the next several weeks, the effort can’t come soon enough as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations hit record daily numbers.

On Thursday, overall capacity for intensive care unit beds in the 11-county Southern California region dropped to zero, while Long Beach saw nearly one thousand new COVID cases, according to state and local figures.

“Receiving this vaccine means the world to me,” said Michael Huang, at Respiratory Therapist at St. Mary Medical Center. “It gives me a feeling of security and hope, and allows me to be safe around my co-workers, patients and wife—who is immunocompromised—and elderly parents.”

St. Mary Medical Center President and CEO Carolyn Caldwell, right, takes pictures on her phone as Michael Huang, a respiratory therapist at St. Mary, receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as a practice run for the hospital’s full vaccination rollout Friday at 6 a.m. Courtesy photo.

The vaccines will be distributed in phases, starting with health care workers at local hospitals, followed by residents and staff at acute care and nursing facilities, emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

The next step would include essential workers in public health and those in dentist and doctors offices and specialty clinics.

The vaccines are expected to be available to the general public by late spring.

Staff writer Brandon Richardson contributed to this report.