'We can see victory': First COVID-19 vaccine shots given in Kentucky at U of L Health
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Declaring "let's knock this thing out," Dr. Jason Smith, chief medical officer at University of Louisville Health, on Monday became the first person in Kentucky to receive a dose of the new COVID-19 vaccine.
Gov. Andy Beshear was on hand to watch as Smith, who is a trauma surgeon, two nurses and two other doctors in quick succession were injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine approved just last week for emergency use in patients.
Beshear declared the vaccine, developed in less than a year, "nothing short of a modern medical miracle."
“This is truly a great day in the commonwealth, a historic day," Beshear said. "Today, we can see victory. We can see the end of the coronavirus and the end of this pandemic."
U of L officials and staff burst into applause as cameras clicked and whirred in the hospital auditorium where the vaccinations took place about an hour after the first batch arrived by UPS truck.
Monday's shipment to U of L is among the first 38,025 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine allocated to Kentucky.
Eleven Kentucky hospitals will get a share from this first batch, while all of Kentucky's around 100 acute care hospitals should get an allocation within seven to 10 days as more becomes available, Beshear said.
Smith said U of L planned to begin vaccinating other workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19 on Monday afternoon.
Already, he said the U of L Health has identified around 6,000 workers who qualify because they care for or work near COVID-19 patients. U of L hopes to immunize everyone who wants it within several weeks, he said.
But the immediate goal is to reach close to 1,000 workers with the 975 doses delivered Monday.
The arrival of the first vaccines came as the state reported a slight decline in cases Monday, with 1,802 new cases, for a total of 224,890, and 17 deaths, for a total of 2,224 since March.
Kentucky's first doses of vaccines are allocated for health workers and residents and staff in nursing homes, gradually expanding to broader vaccination for the general public in mid-2021.
Officials have said the vaccine promises the beginning of the end of the global pandemic that has caused widespread illness, death, and social and economic disruption.
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Smith said he hopes Monday's event convinces others to take the vaccine as it becomes more widely available in coming months.
“I am fully in belief that this is a safe and effective vaccine,” he said. “I volunteered to go first because of that.”
Others who received the vaccine Monday were doctors Mohamed Saad and Valerie Briones-Pryor and nurses LaShawn Scott and Beth Sum.
Briones-Pryor said she has been working on the COVID-19 unit at U of L's Jewish Hospital since March and on Monday lost her 27th patient.
"The vaccine I took today was for her, her family and all the other patients we've lost," she said.
Saad said he agreed to get the vaccine because he's watched as colleagues treating COVID-19 patients caught the virus and fell ill. And having patients die, cut off from family members because of possible contagion, has been hard to watch, he said.
"It's tough to say goodbye remotely to your loved one," Saad said.
Scott, who is Black, said she hoped her decision to get the vaccine in public might persuade other Black Kentuckians who may be wary of doing so. "I'm sure there is a little concern," she said.
And Sum said she's excited to be part of something that might put an end to the pandemic that has dragged on for more than nine months.
"It's felt like forever," she said.
Beshear said Monday he plans to take the vaccine as early as next week as an example to other Kentuckians of his confidence in it.
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Earlier that day, UPS driver Byron Bishop was surrounded by reporters after he backed his truck up to the loading dock where the vaccine crates were quickly unloaded and moved to an ultracold freezer for safe storage.
Bishop, who said U of L Hospital is part of his usual route, said it was "really humbling" to be part of a historic moment.
"I'm sure it's lifesaving," said Bishop, who took a moment to bump elbows with the governor after delivering the vaccine.
The Pfizer/BioNTech doses were among the hundreds of thousands that arrived Sunday at the UPS Worldport air hub at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport for distribution throughout the country.
Doses of the vaccine also were being shipped Monday to Med Center Health in Bowling Green and Baptist Health in Lexington.
Med Center President Connie Smith called the arrival of the vaccine a "monumental event" for a community that has seen high rates of infections and deaths, including a physician who treated COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Rebecca Shadowen, 62, of Bowling Green, a leader with the Bowling Green-Warren County Coronavirus Workgroup, died Sept. 11 at the Med Center hospital.
"We have seen firsthand the impact of this devastating virus on our patients, physicians and health care workers, as well as the community," Smith said.
All 11 Kentucky hospitals designated to get vaccines from the first shipment should have them by Wednesday.
Baptist Health Floyd, also selected to provide vaccines for front-line health care workers in Southern Indiana, said it expects shipments to arrive later in the week.
As for nursing homes, Beshear said residents and staff should begin receiving vaccines Dec. 21. Those will be administered at the facilities by pharmacists for CVS and Walgreens under contract with the federal government.
Beshear said Monday he hopes to have all of the about 27,600 nursing home residents and about 35,000 workers who want the vaccine to receive it in the next two months.
Nursing homes are a priority because they account for about 66% of the 2,224 deaths linked to the coronavirus, Beshear said.
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The Pfizer vaccine is considered 95% effective in preventing infection from the coronavirus, an extraordinarily high rate for vaccines.
More shipments of 110,500 doses of a similar vaccine by Moderna are expected in Kentucky later this month. Moderna's version, which is up for FDA review Thursday for emergency use, also appears to be about 95% effective in preventing infections from the coronavirus.
Beshear said Monday the first Moderna vaccines could begin arriving shortly afterward.
Hospital officials have said they will offer the first doses to workers most at risk of exposure to COVID-19 through treating or working around patients, including health workers, food service workers and cleaning staff.
Both vaccines require a second injection within several weeks.
The vaccine will be voluntary, though hospital officials have said interest appears high among their staff, weary of months of working with the danger of catching the highly infectious virus.
The 11 hospitals to receive the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine are: Norton Healthcare (1,950 doses); UK HealthCare (1,950 doses); U of L Health (975 doses); Baptist Health in Louisville, Lexington, Corbin and Madisonville (3,900 doses); St. Elizabeth HealthCare in Edgewood (975 doses); Med Center Health in Bowling Green (975 doses); Lourdes Hospital in Paducah (975 doses); and Pikeville Medical Center (975 doses).
Beshear warned Kentuckians must continue to take precautions against COVID-19 because it will be well into 2021 before the vaccine is widely available.
"We still need to be vigilant," he said. "Over these next couple of months, everyone we lose between this first vaccine and when everybody can get one is avoidable."
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Reach Deborah Yetter at email@example.com or 502-582-4228. Find her on Twitter at @d_yetter.