Vaccines arrive in Georgia, first nurses vaccinated

On the day the nation surpassed 300,000 deaths from COVID-19, the first doses of a vaccine designed to stop the pandemic landed on Georgia clay.

The Pfizer vaccine, developed with extraordinary speed and spectacular clinical results, was administered Monday to five Savannah nurses just two days after its authorization for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration.

“We’ve been dealing with this since January or February and looking for a light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Lawton Davis, director of the state’s Coastal Health District, which received 5,850 doses Monday, said in a videotaped statement.

“I think knowing we have the vaccine and we’re really beginning to distribute it…is just phenomenal.”

But for all the anticipation about the vaccine and the hopes resting on it, some confusion also gripped health care sites across the state, as hospital systems waited to learn how many doses they would get and when.

Emory Healthcare officials said they had placed an order over the weekend sufficient to vaccinate their entire workforce, and expected to see that amount arrive over time in pieces but were waiting on information. A Piedmont Healthcare spokesman said they expected delivery within the next several days.

The Georgia Department of Public Health, which announced the vaccine shipments, said the decision on where the first shipment went wasn’t up to the agency. Federal officials made the call, said spokeswoman Nancy Nydam, and the state only learned Sunday night the doses were headed for the Georgia coast on Monday.

The spokeswoman said the agency expected more vaccine to arrive later this week in other parts of the state, including metro Atlanta.

However, unlike many other states, DPH has not disclosed how many doses it expects to receive and which health care providers will be given them. The state’s plan says it will prioritize providers and long-term care centers with high volumes and the capacity to vaccinate.

Separately, vaccine is also being shipped this week to five federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Veterans Health Administration, and the Bureau of Prisons. Among the 37 VA facilities selected to receive initial shipments is the Augusta Health Care System. The Department of Defense has said that the bulk of its initial allotment of 44,000 doses will go to health care workers on military bases.

Pfizer’s shipments of 2.9 million doses comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations nationwide are surging.

Georgia on Monday reported 3,296 net new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and 13 confirmed deaths from COVID-19. An additional 15 deaths reported Monday were considered probably due to COVID-19.

Total deaths in the state confirmed and likely due to COVID-19 have passed 10,000. Statewide, 2,962 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, state data show, the highest point since early August.

Georgia is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give initial doses to health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

The reasons the Coastal District was the first in Georgia to receive the vaccine are unclear.

Like the rest of Georgia, the coast is seeing a surge of infections. But by some measures, the counties along the coast generally are faring better than many parts of the state. The hospital region that covers the coastal district and some interior counties reported the state’s lowest rate of any district of coronavirus infections among hospital patients, at 10.2%.

The district, based in Savannah, split the vaccine shipment between two facilities, with 3,900 going to Chatham County and 1,950 to Glynn County. Each of the two vaccine destinations has an ultra-cold freezer, which the Pfizer vaccine requires in order not to spoil.

“The Coastal Health District used today’s administration of vaccine to ensure the last level of training and safety before beginning broader vaccine administration to other healthcare personnel tomorrow,” Nydam said.

Davis, the district director, said the very first doses would go Monday afternoon to public health nurses in his department. On Tuesday he expected that individuals such as hospital staff would begin getting their shots in the surrounding area, including Chatham and Glynn counties.

“This is unbelievably exciting,” Davis said.

The South Public Health District was abuzz Monday morning after local media reported that Dr. William Grow, the district’s director, would be the first in the Valdosta area to receive the vaccine. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, that it was still being decided who would be “the poster child.”

Grow said his staff would go through an intense training program over the next day on how to administer and maintain the viability of the vaccine. At the very earliest they might start getting shots Wednesday, he said.

Dr. Jim Curran, chairman of the state’s Board of Public Health, said he knew only what was in the press releases about the vaccine, but he was excited. Curran may already be vaccinated himself; he participated in the trials for the Moderna vaccine, which is up for approval by the Food and Drug Administration this week. Like the Pfizer vaccine, it has a reported 95% effective rate.

“I’m anxious to find out which group I’m in,” Curran said: the group that got the vaccine or the group that got the placebo.

Christy Norman, vice president of pharmacy services at Emory Healthcare, started Monday morning wondering if vaccine doses were on the way to its doors.

“(We) are working very closely with DPH to see when those vaccines will be shipped,” she told reporters in a briefing. “What that looks like for us is making sure we’re prepared to receive that vaccine.”

Staff writers Scott Trubey, Eric Stirgus and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report.