Data from Johns Hopkins University show that more than 63,000 people have died from COVID-19 in December alone, making it it the deadliest month of the pandemic so far. Meanwhile, frontline workers have been working day in and day out in an attempt to stay ahead of the virus, all while trying to keep themselves healthy. GBH News host Henry Santoro spoke with Brigham and Women's Hospital emergency room doctor Dr. Jeremy Faust about his experience working on the frontlines of the pandemic, and getting his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Henry Santoro: Let's begin with the vaccine. Your Twitter followers all saw a photo of you getting your first shot last week. What do folks need to know about these vaccines?

Dr. Jeremy Faust: The first thing that I think everyone should know and just be proud of is that in a year where science and public health really did not go well we had a lot of disappointments and a lot of setbacks that the vaccine story has been the bright star, the shining moment for us. In one year, [we] went from barely knowing anything about this virus to having a safe and effective vaccine that reduces the chances of getting symptoms and severely ill by an extraordinary amount. So that's the thing they need to know is that compared to the virus itself, the vaccine is extremely safe. And just in general, it's a wonderful achievement that this has been able to happen in such a short period of time.

Santoro: It really is a scientific advancement of crazy proportions. But how did the vaccine affect you?

Dr. Faust: I'll tell you, I could not wait to get my vaccine. I talked to a lot of people and everyone really reported to me very mild symptoms of anything arm pain, a couple of body aches here and there. I had read all the trials that had said 15 percent or 20 percent of patients might have much worse symptoms, like it would knock them out for a day in terms of being at home not feeling well, you might have a flu-like illness. None of my colleagues had that, so then that had to be me; I had to be the one to have that. So I had 36 hours that was not the most pleasant and bounced back pretty quickly after that. And when I think about it, I think about the fact that what I experienced, which was body aches, a little bit of a fever and just feeling run down, that would have been the very beginning of what I would be feeling if I had actually gotten coronavirus. It went away in 36 hours after a little Tylenol. But if it had been the actual coronavirus, then it could have been days, weeks and months that I was laid out as opposed to just a few hours. So knowing what I know, I can't wait to get my second dose. Yeah, I'm going to clear my schedule for the next day anticipating that I could have a similar reaction, but I'm glad to know that I won't have to be on oxygen or be on a ventilator or worse.

Santoro: I mentioned in my introduction to you, Dr. Faust, that December has been the deadliest month yet, with 63,000 people dying coast to coast from this virus. Are these deaths happening because people simply are not listening to what health officials are saying, they're not washing their hands [and] they're not wearing masks? That's a huge number for people dying in one month.

Dr. Faust: It's a combination of people [not] listening entirely to the public health guidance [and] it's a little bit of [people] not necessarily ignoring it, but there's some degree of pandemic fatigue. They mean well, but it's just hard to keep this up for so long. That's one thing. Another thing I will say is that this virus really is difficult, and this new variant that you mentioned is a good example of that. It's more contagious, we believe. We don't know if it causes worse disease. I suspect it doesn't in a very meaningful way, but certainly more cases is always bad. So it's just a very difficult disease to control, largely because it can spread [and] it does spread among people who don't have symptoms, which is highly unusual for a respiratory virus. It's almost considered an adaptation. The idea that when you and I get sick, we have a fever or cough, we're not just having an immune response to fight off whatever invader is in our body, it's also a message to the people in our communities, "hey, stay away from me. I'm a sick puppy right now." This virus kind of exploits that assumption and can spread despite the fact that we don't show those outward symptoms. So people who feel well are going about their business and because we don't have universal testing all the time, we can't pick up these cases. So I think this virus is just really difficult to control. Even when we try our best it's really hard, but there are countries around the world that have shown that if you really try, you can suppress it.

Santoro: You have been at the forefront of this thing since it launched in March. It's got to be both physically and mentally draining. What do you do to keep yourself sane?

Dr. Faust: Thanks for asking. I do feel that a lot of my colleagues are running a super marathon here. And what I would say is that at work, as long as we have PPE and as long as we have the medical equipment we need, we're pretty mission focused. We did sign up, literally, to do this work, so the opportunity to save lives or to help people is the same privileged opportunity that it was before COVID. Unfortunately, we just get more of a chance to do what we want to do, which is to help people. The part that I think is fatiguing is that we don't need to have been in such a bad situation. The number of deaths that you mentioned was not necessarily slated to happen; we could have held this back. And so the hard part is that you go to work, you do the best you can clinically and I think we're all proud of that work, and then many of us come home and we do other work, research or outreach to the public. The soul crushing part is when you see that despite all those efforts, people still are getting sick [and] some of our leaders undermine the messages. and that actually has really measurable consequences on the safety and the lives of our communities. So that's the part that I think is really hardest, to do all the work and feel like sometimes you have an uphill battle to get the right thing done.

Santoro: And the message still is wash your hands [and] wear a mask, right?

Dr. Faust: Absolutely. I think that the other one that I think sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is if you do decide to spend time with other people, it's not all or none. So if you did go somewhere for the Christmas break and you saw family, you shouldn't let the entire guard down. So wear masks as much as you can, even with the people that you're cavorting with, [and] keep the windows open. Instead of a five day week with the family, [do] two or three days. These things can make a huge difference because we are still learning about this virus. And I suspect that there are windows of time when infected people aren't that contagious and it may or may not correlate to symptoms that we're learning still. So the message really is that you can do many, many things that can decrease the chance of getting this virus or spreading it, especially with regard to travel. Just minimizing everything makes a huge difference. It's not all or none.