RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After months of waiting, the first doses of the newly approved Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine have officially arrived in Virginia. The first shots in the state could be administered as early as Tuesday, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s Administration.
Gov. Northam got a first look at the vaccine after it arrived at a Bon Secours hospital in Richmond on Monday. “These initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are a much-needed symbol of hope for our Commonwealth and our country,” Northam said in a statement. “With this remarkable medical achievement, we are beginning to see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.”
Sentara Healthcare in Hampton Roads also received a shipment of 11,700 doses on Monday. Sentara’s statement said the initial supply will be used to cover the first of two doses for healthcare workers. A second dose required after three weeks will be shipped on a later date.
Dr. Laurie Forlano, Deputy Commissioner of Population Health at the Virginia Department of Health, said 18 geographically diverse sites should receive a total of 72,150 doses by Tuesday.
“We’re thrilled that the vaccine is here and there is a lot of excitement around this but it’s still critical to maintain the prevention strategies that we have in place,” Forlano said.
The state is estimated to receive about 480,000 doses by the end of December between Pfizer and Moderna (if Moderna is approved). That’s enough to cover the first dose for about 96 percent of the half a million healthcare workers and long-term care residents being prioritized in the state’s first phase of immunizations, according to Northam’s office.
Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association Communications Vice President Julian Walker said hospitals have to go through several steps before setting up clinics to administer the vaccine. After the shipment arrives at its initial site, Walker said the vaccine has to be transferred into ultra-cold storage. In some cases, he said it has to be redistributed throughout a region.
“Once the redistribution and the storage has occurred properly, then vaccination clinics can begin,” Walker said. “We have some who have said they will begin vaccinating as soon as Tuesday. Some, based on when their shipment arrives, may begin on Wednesday. Some may be later in the week.”
The first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine in Virginia will be dedicated entirely to healthcare workers most directly involved with the care of COVID-19 patients, a decision in line with CDC recommendations.
Sentara further specified that the first round will go to staff who work in emergency departments, ICU’s, COVID units and respiratory units.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is voluntary. Employees are not required to receive the vaccine,” the health system’s statement continued.
Internal surveys conducted by hospitals have indicated that some healthcare workers are still skeptical about getting the vaccine, according to Walker.
UVA Hospital Epidemiology Director Dr. Costi Sifri is co-chairing a safety and efficacy subcommittee within Virginia’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Workgroup. The subcommittee met on Friday to review data submitted to the FDA before Pfizer’s vaccine was authorized for emergency use.
Dr. Sifri said, even though this is the first authorized vaccine that uses mRNA, the intervention has been studied for decades.
Asked about concerns over the speed of the clinical trial, Sifri said, “The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been every bit as rigorous as other vaccine trails and so that has given us great confidence.”
While the subcommittee is comfortable with Pfizer’s vaccine being administered, Sifri said their work is not done. He said they will continue to evaluate emergency use authorizations as applications are submitted.
Sifri said there are still many unanswered questions about the vaccine, including how it could impact pregnant women, children and those with suppressed immune systems. He said it’s also too soon to tell if it will prevent person-to-person transmission and it’s still unclear how long the immunization’s protection will last.