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She Once Thought COVID-19 Was Overblown. Here's Why This Peoria-Area Health Care Worker Now Touts Vaccination

From left to right: Bella, Logan, Jason, and Jessica Archdale in a family photo.
Courtesy Jessica Archdale
From left to right: Bella, Logan, Jason, and Jessica Archdale in a family photo.

This time last year, Jessica Archdale thought the COVID-19 pandemic was overblown for political reasons.

"Even though I heard of patients maybe being sick around the area, I didn't know anybody that was sick. I thought it was all maybe Chicago area," she said.

A self-proclaimed "naysayer," the Peoria County woman believed COVID was probably more or less no worse than the usual flu bug.

Archdale, a quality safety regulatory specialist for OSF HealthCare, usually travels to various medical offices to prepare them for audits or state regulatory visits. But when the pandemic struck, her team was reassigned to the health care system's COVID-19 efforts.

Last November, Jessica began to sneeze. She chalked it up to allergies during an unusually warm late autumn — especially given a neighbor's tree work nearby. But when her mom called to tell her a family friend Archdale had seen the past weekend tested positive for COVID, she decided to get tested herself.

It came back positive.

"I thought it even if I did get it, you know, it's just gonna be a cold. I am a healthy person, besides obesity. I (thought), it'll be just fine. But I was mistaken," she said.

Jessica ended up in the hospital twice for breathing difficulties.

"It became very hard to breathe," she said. "And when I would cough, it would hurt so bad. I would feel like I was gasping, choking for air."

In the meantime, her family friend died from his COVID complications.

"I gave my husband account information and wrote letters to my family, because I didn't think that I was gonna make it. It was really scary. And I don't ever want to feel that way ever again," she said.

Like many skeptics, Jessica originally had her doubts about the ongoing vaccine development efforts, too.

"I was one of the ones that thought that the vaccine was maybe coming out quickly," she said.

A concern about "rushed vaccines" is a common reason heard by Dr. Mark Meeker, an internal medicine physician at OSF St. Mary Medical Center in Galesburg.

"None of the steps were skipped in regards to looking for safety signals, but they were all expedited," said Meeker, noting the accelerated emergency authorization process was necessary to respond to the deadly pandemic as quickly as possible. The challenge doctors like him face is helping people understand corners weren't cut in that process.

"We've given nearly 100,000 vaccines within the OSF ministry. If there were major safety issues with this vaccine, we would be seeing the signal for 100,000 people vaccinated," Meeker said.

Another challenge is helping people understand why the medical guidance is shifting throughout the pandemic. Many often reference the early guidance around the necessity of masking, as doctors were still understanding how COVID-19 spreads.

"This is a virus that we hadn't seen before. So that created a lot of unknowns. And as we learn, we might change our position on something," Meeker said. "That doesn't mean that we weren't being honest in the first place. It means that we're learning more as we go."

As for Jessica Archdale, her perspective on COVID-19 and the vaccine have shifted.

"After I had what I had, I did not ever want to feel that way again. And so I did get the vaccine and I'm happy that I did," she said.

As a health care worker, Archdale was among the earliest vaccination waves.

Her husband, Jason, and kids Bella and Logan also are vaccinated. Though Archdale successfully isolated in her basement to avoid spreading the virus to her family last year, her husband and kids contracted COVID-19 around Easter. Her husband also ended up in the hospital with complications before recovering.

Jessica said both she and her husband are still suffering from long-term effects, months after otherwise recovering. Even now, she said "brain fog" still strikes, causing her to lose her concentration on the task at hand.

Logan and Bella Archdale after getting vaccinated for COVID-19. The younger Archdales had mild COVID-19 cases around Easter.
Courtesy Jessica Archdale
Logan and Bella Archdale after getting vaccinated for COVID-19. The younger Archdales had mild COVID-19 cases around Easter.

She gave her kids a choice whether to get the vaccine when it became available to them. But for them, it was an easy choice.

"They were very willing and excited because they want to go back to a normal life. As we all do," Archdale said.

Vaccination rates are slowing in the Tri-County area, with only around 43 percent of the population fully vaccinated.

Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson said it's important to celebrate incremental progress.

"We're at the point in this campaign that every arm matters. And so we want to continue doing this work," she said.

Meeker said while the situation is improving, it's not time to fully let your guard down.

"So you know we're all hoping and praying that between natural immunity and the vaccine rates that we're getting to where we can start to come out of this pandemic, but I wouldn't say that we're out of the woods, by any means," he said.

Meeker encouraged those not yet vaccinated to speak with a trusted medical professional about their concerns.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.