BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — On December 17, 2020, Dr. Arash Heidari saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

“It was a rush of joy, in fact,” Dr. Heidari said. “Not because I am the first person who’s getting it, but to me, it was the beginning of the end of a nightmare.”

Heidari was the first person in Kern to receive a COVID vaccine. Sitting in the chair with his sleeve rolled up, he felt joy, and pride, and conviction.

“I had a belief in this vaccination efficacy, and that’s why I wanted to be the first person before I started recommending it to other people,” Dr. Heidari said.

For Heidari, hope was on the horizon. But as we know now, the pandemic wasn’t wrapped up with a tidy bow. The new year brought a surge in cases and deaths.

Between the administration of those first vaccines, and the opening of vaccines to the general population, Kern County lost nearly 1,000 people to the virus. People like Nena Martin, who realized too late that the shot could have saved her.

“Should’ve definitely gotten that vaccine,” Martin said in a Tik Tok before she died.

“Don’t let that cause your death,” Martin’s sister Sue Russell said. “Don’t let that cause the death of a loved one.”

Now, with the winter and the omicron variant looming, public health officials urge vaccination above all. It’s crucial, they say, to preventing omicron, or whatever comes next, from wreaking havoc.

“Getting vaccinated is the key to stopping further mutations of this virus and further mutations from emerging,” Kern County Public Health director Brynn Carrigan said.

Vaccination rates in Kern are at their highest since vaccines became widely available, according to Carrigan. Still, the county lags behind the rest of the state, with just under half the population considered fully vaccinated.