Hospitals start COVID-19 vaccinations Monday in historic effort

The nation’s hospitals are starting to receive the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine on Friday, marking a historic day in the race to tame the virus that has killed more than 299,000 in the U.S.

On Sunday, images of the initial doses rolling out of Pfizer plants in Michigan and onto delivery trucks were widely celebrated as the pandemic continues to spread uncontrolled. About three million doses are expected to be delivered to locations across the country this week, earmarked for those on the frontlines and the most vulnerable.

During a live broadcast on Monday morning from New York, critical-care nurse Sandra Lindsay received what is believed to be the first vaccine in New York, a region hard hit by the virus in the spring. Cheers followed the shot to Lindsay’s left arm at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. 

“I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning to the end of a very painful time in our history,” Lindsay said after the first dose was administered. 

Lindsay is just one of many healthcare workers to get a vaccine this week. Many other health systems are either readying to receive a shipment or have already taken them into their custody.  

Ascension, one of the nation’s largest health systems, received its initial allotment at one of its Midwest locations and plans to vaccinate some staff as early as this afternoon.   

“We got our first doses this morning in Wichita, Kansas, at Ascension Via Christi,” Joseph Cacchione, a physician and executive vice president of clinical and network services for Ascension, said Monday morning. Cacchione said they’re striving to administer those doses today to front-line workers, including nurses and respiratory therapists. 

Sanford Health collected 3,400 doses at its Fargo, North Dakota location on Monday, the system announced with plans to vaccinate frontline workers Monday. More doses are expected each week, the system said.

Mercy, a nonprofit, Catholic system with more than 40 hospitals spread across four states, is preparing to receive vaccines today in St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri and Rogers, Arkansas. There are plans to administer those doses in certain locations today.

Systems elsewhere are at the ready to accept their allotment. 

Providence, the first system to knowingly treat a COVID-19 patient, has yet to receive its share of vaccines, a spokesperson said Monday. 

Readying for the vaccines was no small feat. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at a temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius, unprecedented in healthcare settings. 

Many hospitals readied for the vaccines by purchasing ultra-cold freezers, a large investment, particularly if they may not be needed again in the future.

Plus, the boxes they arrive in have strict handling requirements. The boxes can only be opened twice a day for up to a minute each time. The vaccines can stay in those boxes for up to 10 days before needing to be moved into long-term storage such as those ultra-cold freezers. 

It’s why meticulous planning was needed to ensure a smooth transition of the vaccines and why many health systems have run through practice drills prior to obtaining their allotment.  

This weekend Ascension Via Christi in Kansas performed two rehearsals to prepare for being handed the vaccine shipment Monday. Cacchione said two boxes arrived Monday that looked like Styrofoam coolers and reported no problems during the hand-off. He said the scene was similar to receiving other sensitive medical supplies or pharmaceuticals.  

Hospitals have been under considerable strain as cases continue to accelerate in the U.S. resulting in more hospitalizations and the need for staffing resources. More than 109,000 were hospitalized as of Dec. 13, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project

Officials have feared that as hospitalizations increase, the likelihood of deaths will also rise. Officials have pleaded with residents to maintain social distancing even through the holiday season as many may travel to see family and friends amid the pandemic, risking further spread.