KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Exactly one year ago, the first COVID-19 shots went into the arms of hospital staff at Covenant Health on Dec. 17, 2020.

That day was a pretty big deal for health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“That day was special to me because, helping, being able to work and know that I at least have some type of protection besides a mask … I can’t even put it into words,” said Robert Williams, one of the very first Covenant Health employees to receive the vaccine.

Williams, a nurse working in the emergency room, was one of 35 Covenant employees that day to get the shot.

He said getting the vaccine was a big deal to him, because both his wife and daughter also work in health care, so it was always a fear of contracting and spreading the virus to each other.

Debbi Honey, the chief nursing officer for Covenant Health, was one of the key players planning out the execution for the first dose for the entire system.

She also had the pleasure of being one of the first to administer the shot.

“For about two, three weeks before, we said, ‘How are we going to implement this across the system?'” Honey said. “So, we came up with a great plan. I can tell you, from the very first vaccine clinics to what we do today, it has become an absolutely well-oiled machine.”

Since then, she said Covenant Health has given out about 70,000 shots to the public.

Looking back on that first day, a lot has and has not changed.

“You know, we still require masking. We still, those precautions are still in place,” Honey said.

Williams pointed out, when the pandemic first hit, people were scared to visit the emergency room. Now, people have started going back.

“We’re busier than we were a year ago. We’re still seeing you know, those spikes in COVID and we’re still seeing a lot of sick people,” Williams said.

On top of the caseload of patients, Covenant Health and other hospital systems are seeing COVID-19 surges. The vaccine wasn’t widely available when the hospitals experienced the first big surge in cases in January.

But, even after the vaccine was widely available, health care workers saw the biggest rise of COVID-19 patients.

“January was our first surge of patients across the community,” Honey said. “And so, that was unbelievably taxing, just because of how sick these patients were. And then on September 10 of this year, we had our highest number ever.”

She said the majority of patients in the intensive care unit at that point were not vaccinated, and they tried hard to share that message.

“All the data says that you’re best protection against severe illness or hospitalization is vaccination,” Honey said. “And we proved that in that surge, that those patients are not vaccinated. Could that have prevented them from being hospitalized? Maybe. Probably.”

Williams said he often tries to dispel misinformation about the vaccines. He had no worries being the first to receive it, and can’t believe to this day people who are eligible for the vaccine still aren’t vaccinated.

“The biggest thing I hear is, it’s going to change my DNA. And I have two quotes to that: so what if it changes your DNA, you’ll still be alive. And my other things is to kind of educate them that it won’t change their DNA,” Williams said.

Neither Williams or Honey can believe it’s only been one year since the first vaccine was administered in Knoxville.

On that day, the key phrase everyone said was “it’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“I really thought that after one or two months, everyone would get their vaccine and this would dwindle down to nothing and everything would go back to normal,” Williams said. “And then we had the spike with the delta variant. And we’re coming out of that.

“Things are kind of working their way back down, and then now we got the new variant. So, we’ve seen kind of a spike with it. It’s heading back up,”

That being said, both Williams and Honey still believe the vaccine is still the key to ending the pandemic. Honey said she believes COVID-19 is going to be around forever, but eventually it’ll just be another virus.

“I’m waiting for this pandemic to become an endemic,” she said. “We’re going to have COVID forever. But, at what point does it become, across the population, more like a common cold, a flu, because we have enough immunity against it.”

It’s been a long 21 months for all of them. They’re just ready to go back to some type of normalcy.

“I think eventually we’ll make it to the end of the tunnel,” Williams said. “We’re still stuck midway there, and I still believe the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train. So, we will get there, it’s just a slower process than I thought it would be.”

So on this one year anniversary of the COVID-19 vaccine first being administered in Knoxville, Williams said get vaccinated and get boosted.