The Amazing Story of Helen Cordova, the First Person in California to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine

Helen Cordova knows how dangerous COVID-19 is.

She’s been working on the frontline as an ICU nurse throughout the entire pandemic.

“COVID was definitely a big shock for the healthcare community. There was just so much uncertainty and things we didn’t know about it,” Cordova said.

When the vaccine was first authorized for emergency use by the FDA in December 2020, Cordova was chosen to be one of the first recipients of the vaccine.

But she was very nervous and didn’t originally want to get it.

“Initially, I was absolutely not going to get the vaccine. I thought, ‘It was rushed, I won’t trust it,’” Cordova said.

But after consulting with her colleagues and reading the research from the clinical trials, Cordova knew it was safe and the right decision.

“I remember talking with my coworker the evening before the first dose, and we both were like, ‘You know, if we can do this to protect our families and be an example for our families, then why not? Why not us? And just take that leap of faith. We’ve got to trust the medical community, the scientific community, in this decision and in this process,’” Cordova said.

COVID-19 Precautions at Home

Cordova lives with her mom in Canoga Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, Calif., where she works as an ICU nurse at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles.

Cordova was one of the first to take care of COVID-19 patients in the hospital.

Helen Cordova

Los Angeles (48% Latino) has been severely impacted by COVID-19 over the last year. Cordova has seen Latinos particularly affected.

“As an ICU nurse, I’ve seen the sickest of the sick. And unfortunately, at the peak of the pandemic, it was just a huge number of Latinos in the ICU, and the pandemic has just affected them disproportionately,” Cordova said.

Cordova had to take extensive precautions to keep her family safe from the virus.

At the beginning of the pandemic, she would shower at work, come home and enter through a separate entrance from her mother, shower again, and eat at a separate table from her.

“A lot of that was carried out for a long time because we just didn’t know, out of abundance of caution for her and for the rest of my family. And that’s sort of what the routine was for a long time,” Cordova said.

Fortunately, neither Cordova nor her high-risk mother caught the virus, but some of her other family members did.

“My oldest brother and my nephew got COVID. Thankfully, it was a very minor case for both of them. But there was always again that uncertainty, will they have a severe case? Will they be going to the hospital?” Cordova said.

It was difficult for her and made the pandemic feel too close to home.

“It was during the second surge that that happened, and so that’s when it made it even more real. As if it wasn’t real enough already, it’s getting closer to home. And so that was a little bit jarring to have to deal with, still go to work and but thinking in the back of your head, is my family okay?” Cordova said.

Cordova was relieved when her family members recovered well.

But then it was time to get the vaccine.

Initial Hesitation about the Vaccine Turns to Confidence

Initially when the vaccine was announced, Cordova was very skeptical about how quickly it was produced.

“Initially, I was absolutely not going to get the vaccine, I thought, ‘It was rushed, I won’t trust it,’” Cordova said.

Helen Cordova

She had hoped others could take it first and then maybe she would get it later.

But as she saw data from the clinical trials come forward, Cordova began thinking differently.

“I started speaking to fellow providers, people at work, and experts in the field and just asking, ‘Hey, what are your thoughts on the vaccine? Like, what do you think?’ And that really helped, slowly, but surely changed my stance on the vaccine,” Cordova said.

While she felt more confident in the vaccine, Cordova was still very nervous to get her first dose.

Because her unit was one of the first in the hospital to care for COVID-19 patients, Cordova and her colleagues were selected to receive the first doses.

Helen Cordova Fact Sheet
Check out this fact sheet about Helen in English or Spanish!

She found out she was getting it only a day before getting the shot and began having second thoughts.

“When I got that call from my manager and it was set, I started having this inner turmoil, like what did I just do? Am I making the right decision?” Cordova said.

When Cordova told her mother that she was getting the vaccine, her mother was worried that the vaccine wasn’t safe, and that Cordova was putting herself in danger.

But as Cordova reread the data from the Pfizer clinical trials, she felt more confident in her decision and explained that to her mom.

“The next morning, my mom was like, ‘You know what, you’re going to be okay. And when it’s my turn to get the vaccine, I’m going to sign up and I will get the vaccine as well,’” Cordova said.

“Honored and Humbled” to Get the Vaccine

Cordova got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, only two days after the Pfizer vaccine was authorized for emergency use by the FDA.

She was the first recipient of the vaccine in California, and likely one of the first on the entire west coast. Dozens of media outlets covered her shot, including the LA Times, The New York Times, and Associated Press.

Cordova appreciates how the process of caring for COVID-19 patients came full circle.

Helen Cordova

“In hindsight, looking at it all, it’s amazing that I was able to experience all that and I’m very honored and humbled as to what the experience has been and brought from it. I was among the first to care for COVID patients, our unit was the first one in the hospital to care for COVID patients, and I was among those nurses. And so it kind of came full circle like, you were the first to take care of these patients, be the first to receive the vaccine and start having that protection built within you,” Cordova said.

Now that her entire family is also vaccinated and COVID-19 cases have gone significantly down in Los Angeles, Cordova can breathe a sigh of relief.

“Things feel a little more normal, it’s the new normal for everyone. It’s just a little easier to hang out with my family. For me personally, I always had that worry that I’d be the one to bring something to my family members. But now we’re all learning to navigate that new normal and taking the precautions to the extent that I was doing before has definitely diminished down now that the vaccine is out,” Cordova said.

She hopes that people who are hesitant about the vaccine will do research from credible sources and make the best decision based on medical research.

“It’s the same thing I did, do your research, go to credible sources, don’t just trust whatever comes up on the internet. Talk to your doctors, to experts in the field, anyone who’s actually decided to get the vaccine. Talk to them and do that research to really get objective data to make that decision. The governing bodies are doing their due diligence to keep us safe and we have to trust in that,” Cordova said.

Because Latinos are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, Cordova hopes they will take the opportunity to get vaccinated.

“I really urge the Latino community to get out there, do your research, because if you don’t decide to vaccinate, you are still running that high risk to get COVID and the repercussions of getting COVID. We just don’t know how each person will react when they’re infected,” Cordova said. “It’s my wish that this virus, this disease, not continue to affect people in general, but especially our Latino community in such high numbers. I definitely encourage you to get vaccinated, but also do your research as well.”

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How We Transformed Public Health Data for COVID-19 and the Futur

Data is the lifeblood of good public policy, of successful public health efforts, and of any effective emergency response. Especially during an unprecedented emergency like COVID-19, tackling the public health challenges we confront at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requires accurate data, in as close to real time as possible. Over the past year, HHS has completely transformed how it collects, aggregates, and analyzes data for a challenge like COVID-19. These efforts will have a lasting effect on how our country deals with public health data, leaving us better prepared for future outbreaks and other health challenges.
One of the key elements of a response to a health emergency like a pandemic is knowing the burden on healthcare systems—especially the capacity hospitals have for treating patients. But, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government simply did not have a way to know how many patients with a given virus are in hospitals across America.
Moreover, there were many other data points that decision-makers, responders, and analysts across the federal government and state governments would benefit from having access to: levels of crucial supplies, case counts, death rates, demographic information about patients, health expenditure data, and more. These data come from many different sources: federal agencies, state governments, hospitals, other health providers, laboratories, and more. Different federal agencies collect data in different ways, sometimes from sources that conflict.
So, at the end of March, the White House Task Force and leaders at HHS realized that we needed a single data hub: a place where all this data could be securely gathered and accessed by those who needed it. That was the genesis of HHS Protect, an unprecedented system and set of capabilities, powered by various private sector technologies, for sharing, parsing, housing, and accessing COVID-19 data. It was constructed in less than 10 days by dedicated public servants  in the HHS Office of the Chief Information Officer and an integrated, cross-agency COVID-19 federal response team, with partners across the federal government.
Putting all this data in one place was an incredible achievement. But just as important was ensuring we had the data we needed feeding into HHS Protect—like hospital capacity data.
The federal government previously did have some ways to track what’s going on in hospitals. From 2006 to 2016, HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) ran a program called HAvBED. HAvBED requested hospitals that were members of ASPR’s Hospital Preparedness Program to provide their bed capacity on an annual basis and, upon ASPR’s request, to provide an update on how many beds were empty and available in the event of a disaster. This was a limited capability, however, only suitable for certain short-term emergencies. ASPR discontinued the program in 2016 because it imposed a burden on top of capacity metrics hospitals were tracking without providing much value to the federal government. In 2019, ASPR put out a standing opportunity for companies to propose new technologies and products that could help with these data challenges. 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a program called the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), through which hospitals report data on healthcare-associated infections, as part of our work to understand and combat antimicrobial resistance. Hospitals are required to report infection data under Medicare regulations, but before the pandemic, NHSN did not capture data on capacity, occupancy, supplies, staffing, or other patient-specific measures.
As COVID-19 spread in the United States in March, it became clear that there was a real risk that hospitals in certain areas could become overwhelmed. We needed data about where COVID-19 patients were filling hospitals in order to understand how to allocate resources like PPE and federal healthcare personnel and to understand the spread of the virus by geography and patient age.
Multiple options were created to start capturing information from hospitals. CDC added the ability for hospitals to report into NHSN how many COVID-19 patients they had. Over the next few months, approximately 3,000 hospitals were eventually reporting this information into NHSN. Second, through the ASPR funding opportunity, we granted a contract to a company called Teletracking, which many hospitals use to report data to states and for other needs, so hospitals could begin reporting their number of COVID-19 patients that way. Hospitals were also using this system to report COVID-19 patient burden in order to demonstrate eligibility for HHS’s $175 billion provider relief fund. Because many states were requiring hospitals to report the same information being requested by the federal response, we also created a third option, to allow states to report on behalf of their hospitals.
Regardless of which of the three methods a hospital used, all of the data was consolidated into a unified hospital data set in HHS Protect. These data streams provided valuable visibility into needs across the country, and the data from them was widely available to federal responders and state decision-makers because of HHS Protect.
But, while many hospitals reported some data, the reporting was inconsistent and incomplete. We also needed data to be reported every day in order to have an actionable picture of stresses on hospitals across the country. When FEMA and HHS were working to efficiently route personal protective equipment to the places it was most needed, we needed granular data. This was a new need: For well-known diseases that have a long history, and especially before technology made near real-time reporting a realistic possibility, it was typical to rely on estimated data. But for a novel pandemic like COVID-19, where we are constantly monitoring new trends, we needed consistent reporting of actual data, not estimates, and the technology to do that existed.
Then, in the summer, another need arose: We had been shipping supplies of the one FDA-authorized treatment for COVID-19, remdesivir, through state health departments to hospitals, based on the data we had on hospital burden, because remdesivir is only for hospitalized patients. But when the science became clear that remdesivir was most effective early on in a hospital admission, we needed more granular data, and we needed to understand the inventory of remdesivir that hospitals had on hand.
Adding that kind of specific data field to CDC’s NHSN was going to take several weeks. Through Teletracking, it could be added in less than three days. Therefore, to get the data we needed most rapidly, CDC recommended that we shift all hospital reporting into Teletracking.
At the time we made that change, on July 15, about two-thirds of hospitals were reporting through Teletracking each week (some directly to us, and some routing the data through their state health departments). Over the course of this year, we’ve worked with hospitals and states and added new incentives to raise that number significantly. By the end of April, 65 percent of hospitals were reporting at least some data, with about 20 percent of hospitals reporting all of the requested fields every day of the week. By the beginning of 2021, 99 percent of hospitals are reporting not only weekly, but seven days a week, and 97 percent are reporting every required field, seven days a week. Having near-real-time updates about the number of COVID-19 patients in every hospital in the country is an incredible result—leaps and bounds beyond where we were at the beginning of the pandemic.
The system we’ve created also offers an even more efficient pathway forward. While the primary goal of Teletracking and HHS Protect has been to increase reporting rates, there are also technology options to reduce the burden of hospitals having to manually report data each day. Around 70 percent of hospitals now have the ability to have patient data electronically submitted directly from their electronic health records or other information systems, and we now have pilot projects to automate the reporting of data on supplies like PPE as well.
All this data can inform not just decisions about allocating key therapeutics, but plenty of other decisions by the federal government and state and local governments. In addition to the hospital data, HHS Protect offers access to more than 200 other data sets, from private-sector sources, federal agencies like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, CDC, and the Health Resources and Services Administration, and from state partners.
HHS Protect is a solution to a problem that has stymied HHS and government agencies for a long time: how to bring together the huge amounts of data we already have in usable ways to generate useful and actionable insights. To some extent, this was made possible by the emergency we faced. One common barrier to aggregating data from different sources is that agencies can sometimes be protective of their own data and reluctant to go through the work of signing complex data use agreements. The pandemic broke down these barriers and reminded us that we’re all better off when we collaborate and make use, safely and securely, of all the data we have.
Protect makes these diverse data sources available not just across the federal government—to thousands of authorized and vetted users at HHS agencies alone—but for state, territorial, and tribal governments too, including state public health officials and COVID-19 support staff for governors.
Significant amounts of data from Protect is also now available to the public. If you’ve perused, for instance, or the New York Times tool for learning how full hospitals are in your area, you’re drawing on HHS Protect-aggregated data.
Executing on this mission required a dedicated data team. HHS and other federal partners created a new, unique interagency team—the Data Strategy and Execution Workgroup—to create and manage the common data and analysis for the federal COVID-19 response, with experts from 13 agencies and components across the federal government. The team has a unified quality assurance process to review and correct errors in data, and it created governance processes to ensure all stakeholders have the data they need. This kind of unified data strategy has been essential to our success and will be a best practice in responses going forward.
Having all this data in one place has boosted our response efforts in diverse ways. Through Teletracking and HHS Protect, hospitals now report regularly on their stocks of PPE. Some hospitals themselves didn’t even keep track of this kind of data before the pandemic, and having it easily at hand for multiple stakeholders can inform decisions to ship PPE by the federal government and the states. Through an effort called Project Greenlight, we specifically monitor PPE data for trouble spots. If, for instance, it looks like a hospital has just a day’s worth of PPE left or has a severe staffing shortage, we can get in touch with the state or the facility to understand whether that’s a data error or a real emergency shortage.
PPE and staffing data are just two elements of a tool created by ASPR, the Healthcare Resiliency Control Tower, which provides states with the data needed to understand the status of their healthcare systems all in one place. Drawing on data that’s been available in HHS Protect for some time, the dashboard offers a full range of data points about how hospitals and long-term-care facilities may be under stress: bed capacity, ICU capacity, drug availability, staffing levels, positive tests, and PPE stocks.
In the event there is a serious shortage of, say, PPE, we are then in a position to work with states and hospitals to ensure they can get what they need from commercial distributors—whose supply chains we also have visibility into through systems built for the next-generation Strategic National Stockpile—or, if necessary, from the revamped and refilled Strategic National Stockpile itself.
HHS Protect isn’t just about hospitals—far from it. For instance, the testing task force working under Admiral Giroir uses it to access all of the data relevant to testing all in one place: daily test results and all of the related information from every state, how many swabs and reagents states have, where private-sector testing supplies are headed, and more. States like Missouri are using HHS Protect as their state data dashboard, and teams working on the placement of Operation Warp Speed’s vaccine clinical trials used HHS Protect Data as well.
Together, all of these data efforts represent what ought to be the future of federal public health data work: where the federal government is not directly collecting data itself, but working as an aggregator of the oceans of data already being generated.
The days of building customized programs and modules to monitor discrete public health threats is coming to an end. In a world where healthcare providers are generating so much data on their own, we need to be streamlining and automating reporting. In a world where Big Data informs so much of what the private sector does, the public sector has to be making maximum use of the incredible data resources at our disposal and working with private-sector technologies to make the data more useful and available. That is exactly what HHS Protect does.
Running such a system requires financial commitments, leadership buy-in, and the dedication of many talented public servants, but it is an incredibly valuable investment. The better data capabilities we’ve developed over this past year have not just enhanced the efficiency of our response but actually saved lives. That is the goal of all public health efforts, and the future of data in supporting that work is now brighter than ever.

Posted in: Emergency Preparedness and Response, Health Data