Georgia health-care workers and nursing home residents will start receiving immunizations against COVID-19 this week as the state Department of Public Health gets its first shipments of a vaccine produced by Pfizer.
The first shipment of 5,850 doses arrived Monday at two locations in Coastal Georgia equipped with ultracold freezers required for storage and temperature control of the vaccine. Additional shipments are expected later this week at facilities in other parts of the state.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” Christy Norman, vice president of pharmacy services at Emory Healthcare, said Monday during a news briefing.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control during the weekend issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine, the first to emerge from the U.S. pipeline targeting coronavirus. A second vaccine produced by Moderna is expected to receive federal approval for distribution this week.
“This is really exciting for us,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiologist at Emory. “We’re going to have access to a vaccine that looks in initial clinical studies to be highly effective.”
Approval of vaccines to combat COVID-19 is being sped through what usually is a lengthy process by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed because of the pressing nature of the pandemic, as cases of COVID-19 diagnoses, hospitalizations and deaths continue surging across the country.
Habersham Medical Center submitted its order to the state Monday for a supply of the vaccine and could be receiving some within a week, CEO Tyler Williams said.
Williams said the hospital will be a point of distribution for the vaccine for the area and will have cold storage freezers to keep the doses safe. The Pfizer vaccine travels in a box that is temperature controlled to keep the vaccines at minus-70 degrees Celsius.
The inoculations will begin with Tier 1 individuals, which includes clinical staff, EMS paramedics and other frontline healthcare workers.
The next group will include critical workforce employees such as power plant workers, air traffic controllers, teachers, truck drivers, grocery workers and food processors. All adults 60 or over are included in Georgia’s Tier 2 classification, along with those who are immunocompromised.
The first vaccines given on American soil started Monday, including the first one in New York City given to nurse Sarah Lindsay.
As of Tuesday morning, 479,340 Georgians had been diagnosed with coronavirus, and 9,218 had died from the virus.
But Sexton said the rush to get the vaccines into American arms did not compromise safety. The technology behind the vaccines was thoroughly tested in clinical trials before the pandemic began, she said.
“The researchers were able to use lessons learned,” she said.
Sexton said Americans should not be concerned about the side effects accompanying the vaccines, including soreness in the arm, fatigue or a slight fever.
“These are not serious, life-threatening or dangerous,” she said.
Sexton said health-care workers will be in the first group to get the shots because of concerns that the surge in coronavirus hospitalizations is straining the health-care workforce.
“Even if they have a mild case [of COVID-19], they’re out of work 10 days,” she said. “We’ve got a real concern for staff to take care of patients.”
Sexton said the prioritizing of health-care workers for vaccinations includes not just doctors and nurses but custodians, transporters and other hospital workers.
“All of these people are considered health-care workers and are prioritized,” she said.
The other group getting top priority to receive the vaccines – residents of nursing homes and other elderly-care facilities – will be served through a partnership the CDC has set up with CVS and Walgreens.
While many Americans have expressed reservations about getting the shots out of safety concerns, Sexton said the number of willing participants is going up, probably due to the impact of the surge in cases.
Medical experts have said achieving “herd immunity” against COVID-19 – the threshold for making further spread of the virus unlikely – is getting 60% to 70% of the U.S. population vaccinated.
Dave Williams is the bureau chief of the Capitol Beat News Service, which is funded through the Georgia Press Education Foundation. The Northeast Georgian editor Matthew Osborne contributed to this report.