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Tampa Bay could have vaccines by next week. Hospitals say they’re ready.

Tampa General and AdventHealth Tampa have space to store tens of thousands of vials each. The drug will go first to frontline health care workers.
Pharmacist Maureen Lavin displays an Ultra Cold freezer at Tampa General Hospital that will be used to store the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming days.
Pharmacist Maureen Lavin displays an Ultra Cold freezer at Tampa General Hospital that will be used to store the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming days. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 3, 2020

TAMPA — Two Tampa Bay hospitals say they’re ready to start distributing COVID-19 vaccines as soon as the drugs are federally approved and arrive in the area.

Tampa General Hospital and AdventHealth Tampa have the space to store tens of thousands of vials, top administrators told the Tampa Bay Times Thursday. They’ll distribute first to frontline health care workers, in accordance with federal guidelines, and have plans in place to get the drug where it needs to go next.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that he expects the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the vaccine from the drug maker Pfizer next week, and then vials should arrive in Florida within 24 hours. Approval of the vaccine from drug maker Moderna should come a week later.

Related: USF, Tampa General selected for Novavax coronavirus vaccine trial

The governor did not say how much vaccine is coming to Florida, but stressed that there will not be enough for all the state’s residents at first. Hospitals will prioritize getting the drug to frontline staff, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and people 65 and older who have significant underlying conditions that put them at higher risk.

Tampa General president and CEO John Couris said he expects vials to arrive by Dec. 15, if not sooner. It’s possible the state will ask his hospital, one of five tapped to receive the vaccine first, to administer the drug to health care workers from other facilities in the area.

“We have the staff, we have the supplies, we have the processes and systems all in place,” Couris said in an interview. “Whatever the state asks us to do, we are prepared.”

AdventHealth Orlando is another of the five hospitals that will receive the vaccine first, and its Tampa hospital is preparing the same way, said AdventHealth Tampa chief medical officer Dr. Doug Ross. It’s unclear how many vials the hospital will receive and when, as well as whether, they will come from another hospital, the government or a vaccine company.

The other three hospitals receiving vaccines first are UF Health Jacksonville, Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood and Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, DeSantis announced last month.

To prepare for shipments, AdventHealth Tampa has doubled its ultra-cold freezer space in recent months, making it so the facility can store more than 29,000 vials of vaccine at a time, Ross said. Each vial holds five doses, and each person needs two. They’ll be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit) in two steel refrigerators not much larger than a household model.

Tampa General has two similar refrigerators that Couris said will hold “tens of thousands” of vaccine doses, as well as the capability to produce dry ice used to transport vials as needed.

Advent Health Tampa increased its dry ice production capabilities five-fold in anticipation of needing to transport vaccines between AdventHealth facilities and eventually to communities outside the hospital, Ross said. It’s working, too, on new software programs that can keep track of immunizations, as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines each require two doses spaced weeks apart.

Tampa General, meanwhile, has registered 20 locations throughout Tampa Bay to serve as immunization sites once enough doses are available that the hospital can start distributing vaccines to the general public, Couris said. The hospital also is prepared to go into assisted living facilities to get the drug to seniors, he said.

“All of this is being driven by the federal government and the state, and our job is to be good partners and good stewards,” Couris said, adding that Tampa General is “operating in a very fluid environment.”

Ross, the AdventHealth administrator, said he knows there’s a high level of anxiety surrounding the vaccines. They come with unknowns and fears about how quickly the drugs have been produced. But they also offer hope, he said.

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“From all scientific reports, this is a really safe vaccine,” Ross said of the Pfizer drug, which more than 30,000 people have received during trials. “The reason why this has happened so quickly is not because they have cut corners. ... It’s really the technology and the strategy.”

AdventHealth Tampa pharmacist Eliot Gaurkee stands in front of one of two freezers the hospital will use to store COVID-19 vaccines at extremely low temperatures.
AdventHealth Tampa pharmacist Eliot Gaurkee stands in front of one of two freezers the hospital will use to store COVID-19 vaccines at extremely low temperatures. [ Courtesy of AdventHealth Tampa ]

Florida will scale up vaccine distribution quickly once the first shipments arrive and are administered, Couris predicts. Until then, he said, the community must continue fighting the virus by wearing masks, social distancing and being kind.

According to DeSantis, “widespread vaccination” should be possible starting in January, when Johnson & Johnson’s drug is set to be approved. And new treatments and therapies to treat COVID-19 are being discovered all the time.

“What I tell people is, the light at the end of the tunnel is pretty darn bright,” Couris said. “But people have to be patient and understanding with each other to get through.”

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