TAMPA, FL — When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs square off in Super Bowl LV, among those in the stands of Raymond James Stadium will be thousands of front-line health care workers who have been working in risking throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Of the 25,000 fans allowed to attend the game in person, about 7,500 of those in attendance will be vaccinated health care workers. Among them is a 26-year-old registered nurse and lifelong Hillsborough County resident who never imagined when she decided to attend nursing school that, just a few years later, she’d be caring for patients during a global pandemic.
A nurse at AdventHealth Tampa hospital Paulina Rivera of Plant City is the daughter of Mexican immigrants Martha and Marcial Rivera, and the first in her family to attend college.
Rivera began working at AdventHealth Tampa about three years ago and, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, she’s never missed a day of work. In fact, due to a high hospital census as a result of the pandemic, she often works extra shifts to help make up for staffing shortages.
Rivera admits she’s not an avid sports fan but is excited to be going to the Super Bowl. She said it’s not the game she’s looking forward to most; it’s seeing Miley Cyrus perform at the TikTok Tailgate on the Raymond James Stadium fan plaza before the big game and, of course, the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show featuring The Weeknd.
“It’s been hard going to work and seeing so many people affected by coronavirus,” she said. “When I went to nursing school, I never thought I’d be on the front lines of a pandemic working with COVID patients. But it’s rewarding to know I’m helping people during this terrible time.”
Rivera said she was surprised and flattered to among those chosen by the National Football League to receive a free ticket to the Super Bowl.
“It’s nice to be recognized for our work during this pandemic,” she said.
Two fellow AdventHealth team members, Belinda Spahn, a critical care unit nurse at AdventHealth North Pinellas, and Heather Stegmeier, an infection control manager at Advent Health Wesley Chapel, were personally invited to the Super Bowl in a video sent to them by Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski.
And team members at AdventHealth Carrollwood received a special delivery from Super Bowl LV halftime performer The Weeknd. In honor of Black History Month, The Weeknd had 150 meals from Black-owned Mama’s Southern Soul Food in Tampa delivered to team members at the hospital.
Rob Higgins, CEO of the Super Bowl LV Host Committee, and Buccaneers legend Rondé Barber also personally surprised four health care workers at Tampa General Hospital with tickets to the game.
“These dedicated health care workers continue to put their own lives at risk to serve others, and we owe them our ongoing gratitude,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, explaining the reason for giving Super Bowl tickets to 7,500 health care workers. “We hope in a small way that this initiative will inspire our country and recognize these true American heroes. This is also an opportunity to promote the importance of vaccination and appropriate health practices, including wearing masks in public settings.”
All 32 NFL clubs will select vaccinated health care workers from their communities to attend the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, although the majority will come from Tampa Bay and Central Florida.
“On behalf of Floridians and football fans across the nation, I’d like to thank the many men and women who worked hard to make this game a reality, especially our frontline health care workers who have worked tirelessly over the past year to keep people safe,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“I cannot think of a greater stage than Super Bowl LV to honor our health care professionals,” said Ken Hagan, Hillsborough County commissioner and a member of the Tampa Bay Sports Authority. “On behalf of Tampa Bay, I thank the NFL for their commitment to recognize our local heroes for their tireless efforts and dedication to help us get through this pandemic.”
“The unsolicited outpouring of appreciation that we’ve received in support of this initiative from our local health care workers across the community has been truly amazing,” said Super Bowl Host Committee co-chairman and sports legend Derrick Brooks. “These heroes inspire us every day, so we couldn’t be more thankful to the NFL for working to safely create this monumental effort to celebrate them.”