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UF Health in Gainesville begins vaccinating high-risk health care employees against COVID-19

Gainesville Vaccines

Courtesy of UF Health

BY BILL LEVESQUE, DOUG BENNETT, AND MICHELLE KOIDIN JAFFEE

After months of anguish and anticipation, after the long days and the longer nights of a pandemic that has stressed communities across Florida, the nation, and the world, Gainesville took the first step today toward an eventual return to normalcy.

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Vaccination Day.

University of Florida Health clinical caregivers who are most at risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 began receiving vaccinations at the UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, just two days after the first vaccinations in the state were administered at UF Health Jacksonville.

Samuel J. Overly, B.S.N., R.N.-B.C., a trauma nurse and clinical leader in the UF Health adult emergency department, received the inaugural vaccination in his left arm at 8:06 a.m. as media, UF Health leaders, and staff looked on. The shot was administered by pharmacist Suzy Wise, Pharm.D.        

It took all of a few seconds, and the moment was met with enthusiastic applause.

“It’s exciting,” Overly said afterward. “I think it’s a step toward getting back to some kind of normal. We’ve been hearing about it for a long time, talking about having a way to get out of the masks. And I think this is a step in the right direction.”

He was followed by Joseph A. Tyndall, M.D., M.P.H., a practicing board-certified emergency medicine physician who regularly sees patients and is also the associate vice president for strategic and academic affairs for UF Health and the interim dean of the UF College of Medicine.

Gainesville Vaccines

Those initial vaccinations were expected to be followed throughout the day by more than 300 additional health care workers. They include physicians and nurses as well as respiratory techs, lab techs, transporters, environmental services specialists, and EMS personnel — employees involved in the direct care of patients sickened by the coronavirus or who work in areas such as the emergency room where they might be exposed.

“I have personally known many who have died, and more who are recovering from COVID-19,” said Tyndall, who is also a professor and chief of the UF College of Medicine’s department of emergency medicine. “By taking this vaccine, all of us — literally all of us — will have an opportunity to alleviate suffering and save lives.”       

It was a historic moment in North Central Florida and the greater Gainesville community, a first necessary step to eradicate the COVID-19 contagion that has disrupted every corner of society.

UF Health is following criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in deciding who is first to receive the vaccines.

The first vaccines administered were developed by drug maker Pfizer with its German partner, BioNTech.

In the weeks and months to come, vaccines will begin to become available to the wider community, starting with those who have medical conditions, such as diabetes, that make them especially vulnerable to severe disease, and eventually to the healthiest among us.

“We are optimistic about the future, even as we’re mindful of the tragic toll the coronavirus has taken on so many in the communities we serve,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “We think of them as we work toward ending this pandemic. These first vaccinations will ensure our front-line employees are able to do their part to care for us all. One day, we’ll look back on this moment as the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

UF Health’s vaccination program will become fully operational in Gainesville on Thursday, expanding from two to three locations. 

UF Health has 3,500 doses to distribute at these sites to start, although additional supplies are expected to be delivered as they become available. In addition to the Pfizer vaccine, which received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last Friday, a similar vaccine by the drug maker Moderna is expected to become available, perhaps as soon as next week.

Both vaccines have been shown in large trials to be exceptionally effective against preventing disease: 95% effective in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, and 94% for Moderna’s.

“This is an amazing demonstration of what can happen when science is advanced in the face of a nationwide emergency,” said C. Parker Gibbs Jr., M.D., UF Health Shands chief medical officer. “It’s a little sad that sometimes these great advances require great challenges to get there.”

Anyone receiving the Pfizer vaccine — and eventually Moderna’s — will have to get two doses, an initial shot and then a second 17 to 21 days later. The second shot for the Moderna vaccine will follow the first by about 28 days.

Both the Moderna and Pfizer products are known as mRNA vaccines, meaning they use an artificial piece of the coronavirus’ genetic instructions to prompt the body to produce the coronavirus’ spike proteins. The immune system then targets those proteins, producing antibodies that provide future protection against COVID-19.

“You can arguably say this is the most exciting day of my career to see this moving forward,” said Michael Lauzardo, M.D., M.Sc., deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and a public health specialist who directs the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect initiative.

“We get to play offense now,” he added. “We have been playing defense for the last nine months. The challenges are huge, but this is exactly what we all needed.”

Lauzardo noted people need to trust all the work done by scientists and all the data showing the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

“There is an infodemic out there as well as a pandemic,” he said. “People need to listen to the experts, trust the experts, and trust the science.”

The vaccine does not introduce the coronavirus itself, so those who are vaccinated cannot be  infected with COVID-19 through its administration.

While exceptionally safe, relatively minor vaccine side effects are possible, from soreness in the arm at the injection site to minor fever, chills and headaches, which are associated with the body mounting an immune response. In most cases, symptoms are expected to dissipate within 24 hours.

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at exceptionally cold temperatures — about minus-94 degrees to minus-112 degrees Fahrenheit.

Thomas Johns, Pharm.D., executive director of operations and pharmacy at UF Health Shands Hospital, picked up the Pfizer vaccine at UF Health Jacksonville Monday afternoon, accompanying the shipment back to Gainesville in a van. The vaccine was transported in thermal shipping containers packed with dry ice, with a special temperature monitor that attaches to the boxes.

The boxes were quickly transferred to ultra-cold freezers.

UF Health expects the first vaccines to arrive in the coming days at UF Health Central Florida facilities in Leesburg and at The Villages® to begin vaccinating health care workers there.

UF Health Jacksonville was in a group of health systems dubbed the “Pfizer Five” — a handful of sites in Florida that were the first to receive the vaccine on Monday.

In the meantime, state officials are designating some shipments to long-term care facilities, whose residents are among those at highest risk for serious or even deadly complications of COVID-19.

“This is a historic moment for our community as we take the first necessary step to bring an end to this pandemic,” said Ed Jimenez, CEO of UF Health Shands Hospital. “Our health care professionals share faith in this vaccine, and they point to the research and data that has shown it to be safe and effective. The science has led this effort. And there have been no shortcuts.”

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