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Coronavirus vaccines to arrive in Florida within weeks, DeSantis says

Tampa General will be one of five hospitals in the state to store and distribute the drugs. The governor also announced a new treatment for COVID-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms.

Florida is preparing to receive two coronavirus vaccines that could arrive in the state as soon as three weeks from now, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday on Twitter.

He said the state has identified five Florida hospitals, including Tampa General, that have the ability to store and distribute millions of doses manufactured by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna, possibly by the end of December.

Both companies have reported 95 percent effectiveness of their COVID-19 vaccines. DeSantis said they’ll be shipped across the country within 24 hours of approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which he expects to happen in three to six weeks.

Florida is ready with millions of syringes, needles and alcohol swabs to be used to distribute the medicines, the governor said. The state also is working to get vaccines shipped to CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, which will work with about 2,000 long-term care facilities to distribute the drugs to residents.

DeSantis also announced a new antibody treatment available to coronavirus patients with mild to moderate symptoms. The first dose was administered Wednesday at Tampa General, the hospital said. It’s had great success in clinical trials, reducing the rate of hospitalization for those patients by 70 percent, the governor said.

During the treatment, patients are intravenously given proteins called monoclonal antibodies that neutralize the virus and stop it from spreading. They block a protein in the virus before it can enter human cells and cause illness, according to Tampa General.

Speaking about the vaccines, DeSantis made a point of saying no one would be forced to take them. But he added: “I do, though, believe that these breakthroughs represent probably the greatest rays of hope that we have seen since the pandemic began. They offer the prospect of saving thousands and thousands of lives, and could potentially bring this pandemic to an end.”

Florida on Thursday reported more than 9,000 new cases and 81 additional deaths from the coronavirus, part of a weeks-long surge in infections across the nation, including in the Tampa Bay region.

Along with Tampa General, four other hospitals will receive vaccines: AdventHealth Orlando, UF Health Jacksonville, Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood and Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Tampa General released a recorded internal interview with Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, an infectious disease attending physician and associate epidemiologist at the hospital, and a professor at the University of South Florida medical school.

She said vaccines are expected to arrive at Tampa General in the next few weeks, though she doesn’t know exactly when or how many there will be. Lakshmi and others from the hospital had a call with Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees late Thursday afternoon, but the state did not offer details on either of those points, said hospital spokesperson Philip Buck.

Frontline health care workers who are “at risk for contracting COVID-19 because of their job” will be the first to receive the vaccine, Lakshmi said. She did not say which groups it would be available to next.

Similarly, AdventHealth Orlando said in a statement that “many details will be worked out in the weeks and months ahead.”

During a morning briefing presented online, Dr. Tim Hendrix, medical director for AdventHealth’s urgent care services, said much is still unknown, including who will receive the vaccine first. He did say, however, that it will be “several weeks to months” before immunization is available to the general public.

“This is exciting,” Hendrix said. “But it is also a lot of work. ... There are a lot of unknowns, but we are preparing for those unknowns.”

DeSantis stressed that, while news of the vaccine has most of the spotlight, the antibody treatment created by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is just as significant.

The single-dose, infusion-based treatment is provided on an outpatient basis and provides protection to COVID-19 patients who have mild or moderate symptoms to prevent their condition from worsening. It marks a “dramatic shift” in coronavirus care, Tampa General said in a news release.

Lakshmi explained it like this: The antibodies are like bullets, shooting down the virus so that “soldier” or immune cells can defeat it.

The state surveyed all its hospitals to determine demand for the treatment, which takes about two hours to undergo. It passed that information to the federal government, which determined how much of the drug to send to each hospital.

About 3,000 doses have arrived in Florida in the last few days, DeSantis said, and hospitals are beginning to administer them. A similar amount will arrive every week for the foreseeable future, he said.

DeSantis said a similar treatment is being developed by Regeneron, another pharmaceutical company. It’s pending emergency use authorization by the FDA, which the governor said should come in the “relatively near future.”

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