Puerto Rico’s ‘vaccination queen’: Nurse practitioner goes house to house to give COVID shots

Fighting the coronavirus is Abigail Matos-Pagán’s latest calling. She also has guided relief efforts after hurricanes and earthquakes in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

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Abigail Matos-Pagán became interested in medicine after watching nurses support her mother, who died of complications from an aneurysm when Matos-Pagán was 9. Today, she is first commander of the Puerto Rican Disaster Response Team and the director and founder of the Coalition of Nurses for Communities in Disaster.

Abigail Matos-Pagán became interested in medicine after watching nurses support her mother, who died of complications from an aneurysm when Matos-Pagán was 9. Today, she is first commander of the Puerto Rican Disaster Response Team and the director and founder of the Coalition of Nurses for Communities in Disaster.

Caroline Almy / KHN

MAYAGÜEZ, PUERTO RICO — Abigail Matos-Pagán entered a bright-blue house in Mayagüez and was met by Beatriz Gastón, who led the way to her mother’s small room.

Matos-Pagán had come to provide a COVID-19 shot for Wildelma Gastón, 88, whose arthritis and other health concerns confine her to bed.

Wildelma Gastón asked for her rosary to be placed on her chest and motioned to her “good arm,” in which Matos-Pagán injected a first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

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The five family members in the Gastón household breathed a collective sigh of relief. Though the vaccine had been available for months, Wildelma Gastón had been unable to reach a vaccination site.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID data tracker, Puerto Rico’s vaccination rate was one of the lowest among U.S. states and territories.

With each trip to school or work, family members worried about bringing the virus and its threat to Gastón’s life into their home.

Matos-Pagán also vaccinated two of Beatriz Gastón’s children, who are students at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaqüez.

“We have been waiting a long time for this moment,” Beatriz Gastón said as she hugged Matos-Pagán goodbye, expressing gratitude for the home visit.

To her, the vaccine offered more than protection from the coronavirus. It also cleared the way for the family to be together with her mother.

To Matos-Pagán, it is her latest calling. The nurse practitioner, who has guided relief efforts after hurricanes and earthquakes in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, has made it her mission in the U.S. territory to vaccinate as many people as possible against COVID.

In Mayagüez, a city on the western shore of the main island, candidly call her “The Vaccination Queen” and show up at her home asking for help in getting a shot.

About 57% of Puerto Rico’s population is fully vaccinated, but many of the unvaccinated are hard to reach because they live in remote, mountainous communities or have chronic illnesses that leave them homebound.

Matos-Pagán has vaccinated around 1,800 people in Puerto Rico, including 1,000 who have chronic illnesses or are bedridden.

In the pandemic’s early days, Carmen Blas’ health declined, and she began using a wheelchair. Blas, 78, was confined to her home on the third floor of an apartment building, which kept her safe from contracting COVID. Later, though, she couldn’t find transportation to a vaccination site.

In June, her two children Lisette and Raymond visited from Wisconsin to help and immediately called public health officials to get Blas inoculated.

“I usually come back every year, and this was the longest I’ve ever been away,” said Raymond, who planned to extend his visit for as long as he was needed. “It was especially hard as my mother’s health worsened, and I worried I might never see her again.”

Matos-Pagán came to Blas’ home in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, to give her the vaccine. The moment the vaccination was over, the family cheered.

“It’s been really special to have intimate moments in someone’s home during vaccinations,” Matos-Pagán said afterward. “You can tell how much it means to their entire family.”

Mobilizing during a crisis is nothing new for Matos-Pagán. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which cut off water and electricity to the entire island and claimed more than 3,000 lives, Matos-Pagán conducted initial community assessments in Puerto Rico’s most remote and hardest-hit cities. Flooding and debris made many roads inaccessible, blocking these areas from basic needs such as food, water, prescription medications and transportation.

Then, after a series of earthquakes in 2020 rocked the island, leaving even more people without housing or in substandard structures, Matos-Pagán organized nurse practitioners to provide community health care. They supplied at-risk populations with their medicines when pharmacies closed, and teams set up mobile medical tents near overcrowded hospitals.

“I’m hyper and busy in my daily life, but, when there is a crisis, I am calm and still, grounded,” she said. “I feel like I’m where I belong.”

Abigail Matos-Pagán gives Wildelma Gastón a coronavirus shot at her home in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Gastón is confined to bed because of arthritis and other health problems.

Abigail Matos-Pagán gives Wildelma Gastón a coronavirus shot at her home in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Gastón is confined to bed because of arthritis and other health problems.

Alicia Carter / KHN

Matos-Pagán was born in New York City. She became interested in medicine after watching nurses support her mother, who died of complications from an aneurysm when Matos-Pagán was 9.

er mother’s death taught her “nothing was permanent,” she said, which has inspired her to act when disaster strikes and support people through personal tragedy and loss.

Matos-Pagán returned to Puerto Rico to study nursing and later got her master’s degree and a doctorate at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.

Through her work, she holds the titles of first commander of the Puerto Rican Disaster Response Team and director and founder of the Coalition of Nurses for Communities in Disaster.

Her experience managing medical professionals and resources during hurricanes has taken her to locations across the U.S. Atlantic coast and the Caribbean. During the pandemic, she was recruited to assist in triage leadership for an intensive-care unit that was short on resources in El Paso, Texas, and a hard-hit senior living facility in Maryland.

“Not everyone is built for this,” Matos-Pagán said. “. It’s really sad, depressing work. But even when there are mass casualties, you can still save lives and get people’s basic needs met. I’ve seen communities come together in the most incredible ways. It’s a challenge. But that’s what keeps me going.”

Eeven as she is rapidly trying to get more COVID shots into the arms of Puerto Ricans, Matos-Pagán is preparing for the next crisis. Hurricane season began in June. So she will be on disaster-ready duty until hurricane season is over at the end of November.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues.

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