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‘20,000 doses of hope’: Tampa Bay gets first coronavirus vaccine shipment

A “magic moment” as vials of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrive at Tampa General Hospital.
Assistant Director of Pharmacy Ramon Docobo carries boxes containing the COVID-19 vaccine to a freezer as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, back right, looks on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 in Tampa. Tampa General Hospital was one of the first hospitals to receive the vaccine.
Published Dec. 14, 2020|Updated Dec. 15, 2020

TAMPA — Tampa Bay’s first dose of coronavirus vaccine was administered to a nurse at Tampa General Hospital on Monday, a historic moment and a ray of hope as vials of the recently approved drug are shipped across the state and nation.

In all, Florida is set to receive about 180,000 doses this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis has said. About 100,000 are being divided among five hospitals, including Tampa General, and the rest will be routed through pharmacies and the state Department of Health to be distributed to residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

Related: ‘Our magic moment’: Tampa Bay reacts to coronavirus vaccine

Tampa General, the region’s largest hospital, received 3,900 vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Friday. Each vial contains five doses, making for a total of 19,500 that will be used to vaccinate the area’s frontline health care workers.

“This is 20,000 doses of hope,” Tampa General president and CEO John Couris said at a news conference. “This is the beginning to the end. This is monumental if you’re sitting in our shoes, caring for the patients that need us the most.”

Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the University of South Florida medical school, called the arrival of vaccines a “magic moment.” He compared the feeling to watching astronaut Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969.

Tampa General’s shipment arrived via FedEx about 10 a.m., and DeSantis was at the hospital’s loading dock to sign for it, he told reporters at the news conference. The rest of the 100,000 doses going to Florida hospitals should arrive by Tuesday, serving as a “beta test” for distribution in the state, the governor said.

UF Health Jacksonville, another of the five Florida hospitals to receive doses first, was first in the state to administer the vaccine Monday. CEO Dr. Leon Haley received a shot at 10:39 a.m. and staff members followed, the hospital said. Tampa General administered its first dose to 31-year-old nurse Vanessa Arroyo at 11:26 a.m.

Just before Arroyo was vaccinated, DeSantis mistakenly said she was the first person in Florida to receive the vaccine. “You’re going to see the first shot done, right here, right now,” he said. “This is, I guess, patient zero for the state of Florida as it comes to vaccines.”

DeSantis said emergency use approval of the coronavirus vaccine produced by Massachusetts-based Moderna Inc. is expected to happen next week. Florida is set to receive between 300,000 and 400,000 Moderna doses, some of which should be able to go to elderly and at-risk members of the general population.

The state was supposed to get several hundred thousand more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine over the next few weeks, DeSantis said. “Right now, we don’t know. They have kind of dialed it back. I think they’re working through some production issues.”

Without those shipments, the state will have received about 700,000 doses by the end of December. With them, the number will be closer to 1 million.

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What we know about distribution to health care workers

The vials sent to Tampa General will first be used to vaccinate the hospital’s frontline staff, said Kelly Cullen, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

That includes everyone from “the people who clean the floors, to the nurses, to the doctors, to the patient care techs, to people doing COVID testing, to the pharmacy who handles the COVID tests,” she said. In a later interview, Couris said that pertains to those who work directly with coronavirus patients.

The hospital surveyed roughly 5,500 employees about their willingness to take the vaccine. Fifty-four percent said they wanted it; the rest said they want to wait for more safety data, Couris said. About 1,400 have already scheduled an appointment to get it.

Dr. Kami Kim, an infectious disease physician, and other Tampa General doctors were asked to visit units this week to talk with staff members who still have questions or concerns about the vaccine. “My impression ... is that there is far less reluctance than there was several months ago,” Kim said.

No one in Florida will be forced to take the vaccine, including health care workers, DeSantis has said. Because the vaccines will be under emergency use authorizations, they can’t be mandated by governmental entities, and experts say private businesses are unlikely to require them.

Once those at Tampa General who want the vaccine receive their initial doses, the hospital will begin transporting vials to other local hospitals, so more health care workers can receive them, Cullen said. BayCare Health System, AdventHealth, HCA Healthcare, Bayfront Health and Moffitt Cancer Center will coordinate distribution with Tampa General in the coming weeks.

“That’s temporary because they will all start getting their own allotment over the coming weeks and months,” Couris said. “Once they start getting their own allotment, they won’t need us anymore.”

What we know about distribution to long-term care facilities

Walgreens and CVS pharmacies in Florida, which are responsible for distributing vaccines to the state’s long-term care facilities, will soon receive a combined 60,000 doses, DeSantis said. An additional 20,000 will be sent to the state to supplement those efforts, and the Florida National Guard will help the Department of Health with distribution.

Long-term care facilities in Pinellas and Broward counties will be among the first to receive vaccines, DeSantis announced Friday. They’re serving as pilot sites for distribution and will split the 20,000 doses being sent to the state.

Residents and staff at those facilities who have completed consent forms could be getting shots by Wednesday or Thursday, said Department of Health spokesperson Tom Iovino. They’ll be distributed by “strike teams” made up of two national guardsmen and two health department staffers, said Lt. Col. Caitlin Brown.

For now, Tampa General is storing only doses for health care workers. But the hospital is ready to support efforts by CVS, Walgreens and the Department of Health as they work to distribute vaccines to long-term care facilities.

“The state asked, ‘If we need help, can you help us fill in the gaps?’” Couris recalled. “And the answer is yes. We will do whatever we can to help.”

What Gov. Ron DeSantis has — and hasn’t — shared

Though some new information came to light Monday, questions remain about how Florida will get vaccines to residents.

The governor has outlined a general strategy that puts frontline health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staff first in line. But both his office and the Department of Health have declined to make public the state’s final plan, which was due to the Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 4.

DeSantis abruptly ended the press conference Monday as reporters were photographing Arroyo, the nurse who was vaccinated. He slipped out a side door without taking questions from reporters.

Dr. Kim, who has been at the forefront of vaccine planning efforts locally, took the podium and offered to take questions in the governor’s place. She said she did not know whether the governor planned to get vaccinated at Tampa General. After the event, Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for DeSantis, affirmed that the governor plans to get the vaccine but “does not want to jump people in line.”

Related: DeSantis welcomes coronavirus vaccine to Tampa: ‘Today, we will have shots going in arms’

DeSantis recently suggested that just one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, rather than the recommended and approved two, would suffice for some Floridians.

“Just get as many doses out there,” the governor said during a mental health roundtable Friday. “I’m not sure that Pfizer would agree or FDA would agree, but I think just the point is, getting that first dose out really does make a difference, and I think you’ll see that.”

It’s not clear if this idea, which has been advanced in the Wall Street Journal by a neurologist, is part of the state’s vaccination strategy. DeSantis did not elaborate on it Monday.

Pfizer reported last week that its vaccine had 95 percent effectiveness against COVID-19 when two doses are administered. Taking only one dose reduces effectiveness to about 50 percent, the company said.

Asked about the governor’s remarks Monday, Kim said there is “exciting and reassuring” evidence that just one dose can provide some protection, but noted that’s not what the FDA approved. She said Tampa General will “stick to the protocols” that call for two doses.

DeSantis suggested at the news conference Monday that the initial doses sent to Florida will be used as first doses for as many people as possible. He said “corresponding” second doses will be sent later, when it’s time for those who got a first dose to receive them.

Staff writers Steve Contorno, Bailey LeFever and Ileana Najarro contributed to this report.

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