Long and poignant journey to a safe COVID-19 vaccine

Dr. Richard Zane has been fighting COVID-19 all year, and after suffering some personal losses in 2020, he's celebrating the monumental scientific achievement of vaccines that could end the pandemic.
Dec. 17, 2020
Why COVID-19 vaccines are safe. Dr. Richard Zane smiles outsie the Emergency Department at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital
Dr. Richard Zane has been fighting COVID-19 all year and was thrilled when vaccines arrived this week. He’s confident they are safe and said we are all experiencing an incredible moment in history. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

The moment when Dr. Richard Zane received a new COVID-19 vaccine became one of the most memorable of his career and an experience that all of his professional accomplishments have prepared him to fully appreciate.

Why Dr. Richard Zane is confident that COVID-19 vaccines are safe:

  • They have been successfully tested in Phase 3 trials on tens of thousands of people.
  • Independent scientists have reviewed the trial results to make sure vaccines are safe.
  • The side-effects are minor and, for most people, easy to handle. They can include soreness in the arm, just like when you get a flu shot. Some people also might have some body aches and a low fever, particularly after the second booster dose. But these side-effects are not even comparable to a COVID-19 infection, Zane said.
  • The vaccine manufacturers and federal health authorities took the necessary time to test and review the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. Normally, it takes years for vaccines to get approved, but that’s because the steps are usually spread out over time. In this case, vaccine makers conducted full clinical trials, while simultaneously manufacturing doses and preparing to deliver them.
  • These vaccines are a new type, but they are safe, and similar to vaccines that have been in development for about 20 years. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use what is called messenger RNA or mRNA to deliver instructions to the muscle cells in our arm to start producing a protein which is substantially similar to a protein on the COVID-19 virus – the spike protein – which then prompts our bodies to make antibodies for COVID-19. We already have mRNA in our bodies, and soon after the mRNA does its job, it disappears. “It’s like your own cells become temporary vaccine producers. These vaccines are incredibly cool and will define how we combat future pandemics,” Zane says.

Not only are the vaccines safe. They also are remarkably effective:

  • Once people receive both doses, the vaccines are about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections, which is exceptionally high for a vaccine.
  • The vaccines start protecting people quickly. “Within five to seven days after the first injection, you will have partial resistance to COVID-19. Within five to seven days after the second shot, it will be about 94-to-95% effective,” Zane said.
  • If you get COVID-19 after getting your vaccines, which is unlikely, your symptoms will be dramatically less severe, meaning you are far less likely to need medical care.

Even if you get vaccinated, you must continue to:

  • Keep being vigilant.
  • Wear masks in public.
  • Wash hands and avoid close contact with people outside of your home.

“This is the event of our generation. It will be in every history book, every scientific book. The creation of this vaccine will be taught in every medical school class. We are seeing a light at the end of a tunnel,” said Zane, who is an expert on emergency medicine, emergency preparedness, mass casualty care and health care innovation.

Zane became one of the first medical providers on the Anschutz Medical Campus to receive his vaccine as soon as the first shipments become available this week.

He is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at University of Colorado, executive director of emergency services for UCHealth and UCHealth’s Chief Innovation Officer.

When Zane’s turn arrived, he gladly held out his arm as medical assistant Shavona Gunn plunged a needle into the muscle on his upper right arm. The two gave a thumbs up together and Zane said it didn’t hurt a bit. He’s confident that COVID-19 vaccines are safe. And he’s marveling at the moment because it marks both the end of this devastating pandemic and the dawn of a remarkable new era in science.

Rising to challenges all year long

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused suffering all year. Like many, Zane has felt the reverberations personally. His mother is Italian and speaks several languages. She met Zane’s father when she worked as his translator in Switzerland back in 1964. They married and Zane was born there and lived until age 7 in Switzerland and northern Italy, where he still has relatives.

Aside from China, Italy was one the first places to suffer most from COVID-19. One of Zane’s Italian aunts already had respiratory problems before the new virus devastated Italy. She became sick in the spring in her hometown of Pavia where she was a retired university math professor. Since hospital beds were scarce throughout northern Italy, she had to be transferred from hospital to hospital and ultimately died on Easter Sunday, April 12. It’s impossible to know if she died from COVID-19 or the collateral damage that the pandemic unleashed.

While Zane is an expert at helping people during medical emergencies, he was powerless to help his “Zia Carla,” who died at age 76.

Dr. Richard Zane receives his COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Richard Zane was thrilled to receive his first dose of a remarkable new COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Katie McCrimmon.

“There was nothing we could do,” he said.

Zane also lost his father this year. His dad received a cancer diagnosis in the summer.  Zane and his sister brought their parents, Bob and Gilda, from their Florida home to Colorado, where Zane helped his dad get top-notch medical care at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. But the family soon learned that Bob already had Stage IV cancer. There was little anyone could do. With the support of hospice workers, the family cocooned together in Colorado before having to say their final goodbyes to Bob Zane in September. He was 81.

Dr. Richard Zane with Shavona Gunn after she gave him his vaccine.
Dr. Richard Zane and Shavona Gunn celebrated after she gave him his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and the first dose at the Anschutz Medical Campus on Thursday. Photo by Katie McCrimmon.

“There was this big overall crisis of the pandemic, and in our family, we had this crisis,” said Zane’s sister, Daniela Kaisth.

She said her brother stepped up both for his work family and for their family.

“He faced it with courage and also reached out for help. He took care of some things. I took care of others. He realized how important it was to take care of our father. We were a team.”

Always ready to ride in to the rescue

Richard Zane is confident that COVID-19 vaccines are safe. Here, he poses as a child with his sister, Daniela and his parents Gilda and Bob Zane. Photo courtesy of the Zane family.
Rich Zane, lower, right, with his parents and his sister. Photo courtesy of the Zane family.
Zane is the kind of leader who shines precisely when he’s facing life’s toughest challenges.

He was driving his family from Massachusetts to Colorado for his new job as head of the Emergency Department at University of Colorado Hospital on the day in July of 2012 when a gunman attacked theater goers in Aurora, a short distance from Zane’s hospital. First responders and Zane’s team handled the emergency overnight, but Zane later wrote a playbook on mass casualties and lessons learned from the Aurora shootings that assisted his former colleagues when they dealt with the Boston Marathon bombings less than a year later in April of 2013.

Kaisth said her big brother always seems primed for emergencies. Instead of donning a superhero’s cape, he’s poised with a stethoscope, a sense of calm and a plenty of medical knowledge. One time, he also happened to have a life-saving lollipop.

Zane was visiting Kaisth around the holidays and the two were at a mall near her home in New Jersey. They divided up to run errands and planned to meet back at the car.

Zane was late, and when he showed up, he calmly explained the holdup.

Dr. Richard Zane is confident that vaccines for COVID-19 are safe. Here, he poses with his mom.
Dr. Richard Zane with his mom, Gilda. The family had a tough year. Gilda Zane lost both her husband and her sister during 2020. Photo courtesy of the Zane family.

“I was walking through the mall and a guy was in diabetic shock. I found a little lollipop in my pocket and put it in the guy’s mouth. I had to wait for the ambulance,” he explained.

Zane was nonplussed. Kaisth was stunned.

“That’s crazy,” she said.

“He was just so calm.”

It’s actually typical of her brother, who is two years older and has always been her protector and champion.

“He immediately sprang into action, probably saved that guy’s life, then found me and drove home,” she said. “He never thinks what he does is a big deal. He’s a strong person who also has this very caring side.”

Kaisth is used to working with powerful leaders. She’s president of Gratias Partners and helps non-profits and high-impact donors invest in philanthropical projects around the globe.

“She’s the smart one,” Zane says of his sister.

Kaisth, in turn, says Zane is a rare techy wonk who also has a big heart.

Dr. Richard Zane is confident that COVID-19 vaccines are safe. Here, he poses with his sister, Daniela, when the two were kids.
Dr. Richard Zane, left, has always been close with his little sister, Daniela. Photo courtesy of the Zane family.

Zane’s dedication to his staff shows in the Emergency Department. He takes at least one shift a week working alongside students and new doctors, even though he has plenty of managerial work to keep him busy. He’s juggling the equivalent of four jobs: Chief innovation officer for UCHealth’s 12-hospitals, Chair of Emergency Medicine for the University of Colorado School of Medicine, emergency medicine doctor and one of the leaders for UCHealth’s pandemic response team. While some administrators don’t work directly with patients, Zane believes it’s critical to keep seeing patients and to mentor younger providers.

‘Running toward the explosion’

When the pandemic hit, the ER instantly became one of the most vulnerable places. Zane worked to keep patients and staff members safe, coordinating closely with UCHealth’s infectious disease experts, like Dr. Michelle Barron, and others to make sure everyone had the right protective gear.

It then became obvious that the lack of reliable, plentiful COVID-19 tests was a huge problem. Without adequate testing, how could medical providers accurately diagnose patients and begin to slow the spread of COVID-19? Zane and his team immediately started working with researchers and lab experts at University of Colorado to test the accuracy and reliability of commercial COVID-19 tests, while also manufacturing their own. He and others ultimately set up a system that supplies thousands of COVID-19 tests a day, an indispensable tool for timely diagnoses.

During the spring shutdown, it also became clear that patients needed to see their doctors safely from home. UCHealth already had a Virtual Urgent Care, but demand for the service grew overnight. Patients loved the convenience and the 24/7 access to Colorado medical experts. At the same time,  Zane, UCHealth’s Chief Information Officer Steve Hess, and many others scaled up a full-fledged Virtual Health center, extending online visits from urgent care to primary care and specialty care almost overnight — in all making virtual visits possible in about 600 clinics.

Dr. Richard Zane wearing a respirator mask. Zane is confident that COVID=19 vaccines are safe.
Dr. Richard Zane wearing a respirator mask during an ER shift. He’s thrilled to be getting his COVID-19 vaccine soon and is confident that the vaccines are safe. Photo courtesy of Dr. Richard Zane.

“We’ve been running a marathon on a sprinter’s pace,” Hess said. “All of this was unknown. It’s so impressive to me that people like Rich and others in the ER had no clue what this disease was. Yet, they were putting their own lives at risk.

“It’s like that commercial for the Army that shows some people running away and others running toward an explosion. That’s how I see Rich. He’s the guy, leading the charge, running toward the explosion, running toward the pandemic. He jumped in to help with labs, testing, the ER and now vaccines.

“Some people shrink in the spotlight,” Hess said. “Rich embraces it. He is commanding. This was his moment. He keeps people safe.”

Another colleague, Dr. Richard Schulick, has known Zane since the two trained together at Johns Hopkins University. Back when they met, Shulick was a surgical resident and Zane was one of his interns.

Both are high-powered leaders today, but Schulick still likes to rib Zane.

“He’s a bigshot, but I always tell him that he’s still my intern,” said Schulick, who is a renowned cancer surgeon and Chair of Surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“We’d get up at 3:30 a.m. and do rounds. We had a lot of complex patients. We really bonded through that experience,” Schulick said.

He now sees the pandemic as the perfect challenge for Zane.

“He’s data-driven. He’s organized. He’s pragmatic and he gets the job done. He’s even a little bit modest,” Schulick said with a laugh.

“He was on the frontlines from the beginning. Before anyone gets admitted to the hospital, they go through his department. He had to deal with COVID-19 immediately, and he did a great job,” Schulick said. “The key is balance: getting things done while staying safe and taking care of people. Our primary mission is to take care of people and he always takes care of patients and his staff.”

A love for emergency medicine and a desire to shake it up

While Zane has excelled at medicine, he might just as easily have become a lawyer, a college professor or a professional motocross rider.

Dr. Richard Zane loved riding motorcycles as a boy.
For a time, Dr. Richard Zane figured he’d be a professional motocross rider. Photo courtesy of the Zane family.

Back in high school in Pennsylvania, where the family moved after returning from Europe, Zane loved wrestling and playing on the football team. His dad worked in the fashion industry, and when Zane announced toward the end of high school that he planned to skip college to ride motorcycles, his dad wisely got his son a job in a warehouse.

Zane lasted three days before deciding that college was indeed for him. He played offensive tackle for the Johns Hopkins football team and after graduating, taught elementary school and coached football for a year before simultaneously applying to medical school, law school and graduate school.

His soon-to-be-wife, Siobhan Murphy-Zane, had plans to go to medical school. Zane wanted to impress her, so he opted for medical school too. The two met at age 22, have been married for 26 years and have three children. Murphy-Zane now is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

During medical school, Zane originally planned to go into primary care or become an obstetrician. Then, he found his calling in emergency medicine.

“It really clicked. It felt like skimming the cream from every other specialty. There’s this intensity. There’s something new all the time. It’s very intense,” Zane said.

Dr. Richard Zane is confident that vaccines for COVID-19 are safe. Here, Zane poses back in college at Johns Hopkins where he played on the football team.

After medical school at Temple University, he completed his residency and fellowship at Johns Hopkins and went on to practice at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and to serve as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Zane started working on emergency preparedness and mass casualty care well before arriving in Colorado, and during an expansion at University of Colorado, when he had the chance to create a new Emergency Department from the ground up, Zane insisted on a “no waiting” system.

“His vision was, ‘I want to keep the waiting room empty. We need to make sure we’re getting patients back into exam rooms within 15 minutes,’” said Hess, a frequent co-conspirator with Zane in plans to disrupt and improve stubbornly complex health systems.

The idea of an empty waiting room was revolutionary and entirely antithetical to TV shows that portrayed ERs stuffed to the gills with people waiting for hours to get care.

“Think about that: an empty waiting room,” Hess said. “He has vision and he’s strategic and he has a passion for disruption.”

Steve Hess, UCHealth Chief Information Officer, headshot.
UCHealth Chief Information Officer, Steve Hess, works closely with Dr. Richard Zane and says the two frequently “run through the briar patch” together to push for solutions to thorny problems in health care. Photo: UCHealth.

The concept has worked so well that UCHealth has replicated Zane’s designs in all its Emergency Departments. In normal times, health leaders from across the U.S., Europe and Asia regularly visit the University of Colorado Emergency Department to learn how they might re-shape their hospitals. And the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada have tapped Zane’s concepts to reshape their highly regarded hospitals.

COVID-19 certainly has stressed Emergency Departments and hospital managers across the globe, but Zane and fellow leaders keep reassessing and redesigning their systems to adapt to the pandemic. Now Zane, Hess and other leaders are racing to get thousands of UCHealth employees, community providers and contractors vaccinated as quickly as possible. Their ambitious goal for the moment: get those who have frequent and direct contact with COVID-19 patients vaccinated before Christmas.

Challenges like these are business as usual for Zane, said Hess.

The two joke about “running the briar patch together” every time they launch a new endeavor or innovation.

“Think about a briar patch. It’s a messy bunch of thick bushes and barbs,” Hess said. “we call health care the briar patch. It’s complex and everywhere you turn, you’re going to get stuck on another barb. You’re going to get some scars. And sometimes, you’re going to get stuck. But, we’ve got each other’s backs. And, when we get to the other side, some really cool things have been created.”

Pandemic like a mass casualty event that lasts for months

Zane studied natural sciences and writing, not industrial engineering, but he likes the idea of methodically shaking things up. That’s a good thing because the challenge of facing the biggest pandemic in a century forced Zane and his colleagues to do just that day after day throughout 2020.

“I have only read about what it was like to live through the Spanish flu in 1918, but this experience isn’t comparable to anything we’ve lived through before. There’s no comparison in my lifetime. We’ve made plans for anthrax, small pox, Ebola, terrorism, riots and natural disasters. Nothing compares to this,” Zane said.

While we tend to think of mass casualty events as quick bursts of chaos, the pandemic actually has been a mass casualty event spread over many months, Zane said. And to handle that kind of ongoing chaos, staying calm and deliberate is all the more important.

Dr. Richard Zane is confident that vaccines for COVID-19 are safe. Here he poses in an Emergency Department which he transformed.
Dr. Richard Zane transformed the Emergency Department at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

“My approach to everything is to try to be deliberate and very systematic. We embed technology and data in everything when it makes sense, but always unapologetically and deliberately,” Zane said.

“We think differently about challenges and constantly try to identify a better way even if it’s been done a certain way forever.  We develop tools for emergency preparedness. I feel like that approach is what is needed for this moment,” Zane said.

“All disasters are just a supply and demand mismatch. It’s all about context,” Zane said.

For example, if there’s a bad car accident in a town with a tiny hospital, medical providers can’t handle the influx of several patients all at once. On the other hand, a big hospital with plenty of resources, can handle the crush.

Responding to COVID-19 has required Zane and many, many others to keep bracing for new waves of very sick people, and each time, to be better prepared so they could help more and more of them survive. In fact, the team of providers accomplished just that. Survival rates for COVID-19 have improved dramatically as providers have learned how to better help patients and new therapies have arrived to help them.

Zane said it’s no surprise that the UCHealth team has done well. Teams were ready and executed their plans.

“We don’t think of disasters as isolated occurrences,” Zane said.

“You’re going to have a consistent approach to crisis management, transparency of decisions, follow standard operating procedures when appropriate and being deliberate and proactive throughout the crisis,” Zane said.

He gives teams at UCHealth – providers and leaders – high marks for weathering the COVID-19 storm.

“Everyone has done a remarkable job of being deliberate, proactive, paying attention to detail, taking care of people and understanding our guiding principles: that we’re taking care of patients and we will never put our staff and providers in positions where they don’t have the right equipment,” Zane said.

And now, a ‘Herculean’ effort produce a miraculous vaccine

Dr. Richard Zane in his motorcycle helmet.
Dr. Richard Zane always wears a helmet when he rides his motorcycle. Photo courtesy of Dr. Richard Zane.

By next summer, Zane hopes a large percentage of people in the U.S. will be vaccinated and the country and medical providers can finally declare the pandemic over.

Perhaps then, Zane will have more time to relax and enjoy his hobbies like spending time with his family and riding his motorcycle (always wearing a helmet!).

And when he reflects on 2020, he’ll remember getting his vaccine and thinking about the remarkable efforts that made it possible.

“It’s truly one of the most monumental scientific achievements of our lifetimes. Full stop. Operation Warp Speed has put more resources in front of scientists than ever before. It’s not just dollars, but people: the most brilliant minds working on a problem in a very deliberate, systematic way.

Dr. Richard Zane is confident that vaccines for COVID-19 are safe. He looks forward to a time when the pandemic is over and he has time to ride his motorcycle again.
Dr. Richard Zane is looking forward to the end of the pandemic so he’ll have time to ride his motorcycle again. Photo courtesy of the Zane family.

“This vaccine was produced in an amazing, thoroughly deliberate, Herculean, genius way,” Zane said. “It’s actually mind-blowing. It’s just unbelievable. I’m not religious. But you could almost call it a miracle.”

Zane’s colleague and buddy, Dr. Schulick, agrees.

“When it’s my turn, I’m running to get the vaccine,” Schulick said.


Editor’s note: For more information on COVID-19 vaccines, please click here


About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.