CHARLOTTE — The first doses of the FDA-authorized Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in North Carolina.
Hospitals across the Charlotte area were preparing for the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine after the first trucks carrying doses left the Pfizer facility in Michigan Sunday morning. On Monday, Atrium Health announced it was the first health system in North Carolina to administer an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer.
Shipments of the Pfizer vaccine set in motion the biggest vaccination effort in American history at a critical juncture of the pandemic that has killed 1.6 million and sickened 71 million worldwide.
Just after 10 a.m. Monday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper took to social media to announce that the state’s first doses of the vaccine had arrived, calling it a “remarkable achievement for science and health.”
Initially, about 3 million doses were expected to be sent out, and the priority is health care workers and nursing home residents as infections, hospitalizations and deaths soar in the U.S.
With numbers likely to get worse over the holidays, the vaccine is offering a bright spot in the fight against the pandemic that’s killed nearly 300,000 Americans.
Federal officials say the first shipments of Pfizer’s vaccine will be staggered, arriving in 145 distribution centers Monday, with an additional 425 sites getting shipments Tuesday, and the remaining 66 on Wednesday.
The vaccine, co-developed by German partner BioNTech, is being doled out based on each state’s adult population.
‘A moment of hope’: Charlotte doctor first in NC to get COVID-19 vaccine
Atrium Health is one of just 11 hospitals in North Carolina to get the very first batch of the vaccine. The hospital tweeted photos showing workers wheel the vaccine out, open up the boxes, and put them directly into cold storage.
After tweeting that they had received the vaccine, Atrium Health also said its medical director of Infection Prevention, Dr. Katie Passaretti, was the first person in North Carolina to be vaccinated.
“This is a moment of hope as this vaccine has the potential to change the course of where we are with the pandemic,” Passaretti said. “I couldn’t be more excited. I feel perfectly fine and I haven’t had any issues or complications with the vaccine. I would highly encourage everyone to talk with your doctor and consider getting vaccinated when it is available for you.”
Eyewitness News reporter Glenn Counts spoke to Passaretti, who said she got emotional coming into work knowing she would be the first one to get the shot and thinking about the burden COVID-19 has placed on her colleagues and everyone else.
“Definitely meaningful to me in protecting my loved ones, my family, my friends, and getting us back to a place where we can be together again for Christmas,” she said.
The vaccine was produced in record time, months instead of years, and that’s why a lot of people don’t trust it, but Passaretti is not one of them.
“I would like to reassure people that while it happened quickly, that’s because you had the entire scientific community worldwide working on it at the same time. There were no funding obstacles. There was no red tape obstacles of which there are many in getting a vaccine to market,” she said.
Atrium Health began inoculating front line workers immediately. About 15 employees were expected to receive the vaccine on Monday.
Atrium Health’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Little spoke with Channel 9 Monday afternoon to provide an update on the hospital receiving the vaccine.
He called Monday their Super Bowl, with the vaccine now giving them more tools to fight the virus.
“Today, my spirit is certainly lifted with the vaccine arriving and December 14 will be a historic day I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Eugene A. Woods, president and CEO of Atrium Health. “This has been a year that has tested all of us, and after fighting in the trenches 24/7, I am so happy that the cavalry is finally starting to arrive. Teams have been working around the clock at Atrium Health to prepare for vaccine distribution, and while we still have some months of heavy lifting, our frontline heroes have started to get the protection they deserve as we continue to provide health, hope and healing to each community we are privileged to serve.”
Atrium revealed that, while being able to administer the vaccine is a big deal, Monday’s shipment fell a little bit short of expectations. Little said they received far fewer doses than they had expected but would not give an exact number.
It is also unclear when they will receive those remaining doses.
“Our goal is to quickly ramp up and vaccinate as many as we can as quickly as we can as we roll this through,” Little said.
He also said that he is hoping the rest of the doses they expected Monday will arrive at the end of the week, but couldn’t say for sure.
Now that the first doses are in North Carolina, they will go to 53 hospitals across the state. Fifteen hospitals in the Charlotte area, including Atrium, will get a total of 22,450 doses.
The first doses in North Carolina will go to frontline workers and people in long-term care facilities.
(Watch the video below to see the first vaccinations being administered to Atrium Health frontline workers. Courtesy: Atrium Health)
The vaccine distribution will continue throughout the week. From Dec. 14 through Dec. 18, hospitals across North Carolina expect to receive more than 85,000 doses of the vaccine.
By Christmas, the state hopes to have delivered vials of the vaccine to all 100 counties.
>> Atrium Health is looking for volunteers who want to learn about, and possibly join, a future COVID-19 vaccine research study. The first step of a vaccine research study is creating a registry. If you’d like to help, please consider signing up.
Although Atrium has started this new and very hopeful phase of combatting the virus by administering a vaccine for COVID-19, leaders said it remains critical for everyone to continue practicing COVID-Safe behaviors such as wearing a mask, social-distancing and handwashing, before and after having been vaccinated.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen released a video message on Twitter, supporting the state’s effort to get as many people vaccinated against COVID-19 as possible.
”There’s good news in the fight against COVID,” Dr. Cohen says in the video. “Tested, safe and effective vaccines will be available to all, starting with those most vulnerable to the virus. Rest assured, you have a spot and you’ll be able to take your best shot against COVID.”
A website was launched with more information about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.
Other local hospitals planning to give shots midweek
Channel 9 has learned that Caldwell Memorial Hospital will begin administering the shots on Wednesday, not only in Lenoir but also possibly in Morganton.
Caldwell Memorial officials showed Chanel 9 their super-cold freezer that the vaccine will be stored in when it arrives.
They, along with other hospitals in the area, have been meeting almost daily to work out the logistics on which employees will receive the first doses.
We’ve learned the hospitals in Lenoir and Morganton will both get 975 doses each.
The vaccine is heading to hospitals and other sites that can store it at extremely low temperatures — about 94 degrees below zero. Pfizer is using containers with dry ice and GPS-enabled sensors to ensure each shipment stays colder than the weather in Antarctica.
UPS and FedEx are working together to ship the vaccines. A UPS official said they had to come up with new technology to ship the vaccine since it needs to stay so cold.
“So the technology we built, which we call UPS Premier, is a tag with Bluetooth and radio that allows us to have visibility in any building in the United States,” Wes Wheeler from UPS Healthcare said.
Doses should be delivered to all vaccination sites identified by states, such as local pharmacies, within three weeks, federal officials said.
Atrium Health was among the hospitals in North Carolina to receive the vaccine before others because they already have room in their freezers to store it.
North Carolina is due to get about 85,000 doses in the first shipment and 53 hospitals will get them. Fifteen hospitals in the Charlotte area will get 22,450 doses.
On Tuesday morning, Novant health officials told Channel 9 why this comes at such a critical time for the hospital.
Novant said it could receive its first vaccine doses by Thursday.
Dr. David Priest said Novant Health has seen a steady increase in both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Bed shortages in Forsyth County have led leaders there to temporarily suspend non-emergency surgeries.
That has not happened yet in Charlotte, but if trends continue to climb, it could –- which is why the vaccine comes at a critical time.
State health officials have said Novant Health Presbyterian will receive close to 3,000 doses in the first week. Novant said it will vaccinate high-risk health workers in emergency departments and on COVID care units first.
Officials said there are about 21,000 high-risk health workers under the Novant Health umbrella.
The shots will be given to workers who want to take them, it will not be mandatory.
Pfizer will roll out more doses, but the process of getting vaccines to everyone could take several months.
This first rollout will ensure there is enough vaccine to give people the two doses needed for full protection against COVID-19. That means the government is holding back 3 million doses to give those vaccinated in the first round a second shot a few weeks later.
In North Carolina, that will happen in four phases:
Phase 1A includes the first vaccine shipment and will be for frontline healthcare workers and people in long-term care facilities.
Phase 1B is for adults with the highest risk of illness or exposure.
Phase 2 is high risk adults.
Phase 3 is students and essential workers. Everyone will be able to get the vaccine in Phase 4.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the vaccine Friday, saying it is highly protective and presents no major safety issues. While U.S. regulators worked for months to emphasize the rigor and independence of their review, they faced political pressure until the final stages.
Concerns that a shot was rushed out could undermine vaccination efforts in a country with deeply ingrained skepticism about vaccines. The head of the FDA said the agency’s decision was based on science, not politics, despite a White House threat to fire him if the vaccine wasn’t approved before Saturday.
While the vaccine was determined to be safe, regulators in the U.K. are investigating several severe allergic reactions. The FDA’s instructions tell providers not give it to those with a known history of severe allergic reactions to any of its ingredients.
Another vaccine by Moderna will be reviewed by an expert panel next week and soon afterward could be allowed for public use.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Mayor Vi Lyles joins Novant Health’s effort to overcome vaccine hesitancy
In an effort to overcome vaccine hesitancy, Novant Health said it is partnering with Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles to encourage all community members to get vaccinated as soon as supply allows.
The announcement follows recent national polling that shows a large number of people will opt out of getting vaccinated, citing concerns ranging from the vaccine being rushed to the vaccine having ulterior motives to its inequitable distribution.
With the procurement and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine imminent, Novant Health and Lyles are calling on community leaders and health care workers to lead by example and make their intentions to get vaccinated known.
“On the heels of a summer fraught with protest and injustice in our black communities, I understand that the mistrust of our public institutions is not just one of legacy, it is rightfully being felt today,” said Jesse Cureton, chief consumer officer of Novant Health. “Yet we need all of our communities to know that we are in the business of saving lives, not doing harm. We will not deceive anyone. We will not discriminate against anyone. The science shows this is an effective and safe way to stop COVID-19 from taking more of our family, friends and neighbors. We thank the Mayor for using her voice to help us reach our communities who need to hear it most.”
“As a leader, and a person of color, I believe it’s important to declare my commitment to get the vaccine because I am confident that it is safe and will be effective,” said Lyles. “And while I will get my vaccine after healthcare workers, first responders and our community’s most vulnerable citizens, I am making my plans known today in an effort to help others have the same confidence in the science.”
Novant Health currently is approved to distribute vaccines at three of its facilities: Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center and Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center.
In its first allocation, Novant Health will receive nearly 7,000 doses from the state, which determines supply distribution. The health system recently purchased ultralow freezers with the capacity to store at least 500,000 doses and has additional capacity to store more than 1 million doses at different temperature levels.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.