Vaccinations of frontline health care workers began at East Alabama Medical Center this week as the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout the Lee County community and EAMC matches its pandemic peak in hospitalizations.
EAMC began distributing the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer to its frontline employees on Tuesday. EAMC is one of 15 Alabama hospitals to receive shipments of the vaccine during the first wave of distribution.
"The vaccines arrived around 7 a.m. today," said EAMC spokesman John Atkinson on Tuesday. "After opening the container, the vaccines were placed in a sub-zero freezer at negative 80 degrees Celsius within three minutes as required."
The first vaccines were administered to EAMC employees around 1 p.m. on Tuesday.
"Employees initially eligible for the vaccines include nurses, physicians and other employees who are in direct contact with patients during at least 25 percent of their workday," said Atkinson. "We didn't ask certain employees to go first; we just opened a phone line for scheduling and those who called first received the first time slots. There was a lot of excitement among those who got vaccinated today."
EAMC infectious disease specialist Dr. Ricardo Maldonado and EAMC Chief of Staff Dr. Michael Roberts received a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Wednesday. The vaccines offered a "ray of hope" during trying times, said Maldonado.
EAMC officials have met for more than a month to plan for vaccine distribution, and held multiple rehearsals before beginning the process on Tuesday. EAMC received 2,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in its first allotment, Maldonado said.
Phase 1 of Alabama' s Covid-19 Vaccine Allocation Plan calls for the vaccination of frontline health workers, those working in healthcare services, first responders, and those living in nursing homes, with distribution based on risk.
The Pfizer vaccine received emergency use authorization from the FDA last week after it underwent a thorough analysis by its vaccine advisory panel. The vaccine was found to have an efficacy rate of 95 percent, with no serious adverse side effects. The vaccine will be administered in two doses, three weeks apart.
The FDA's analysis of Moderna's vaccine also concluded that it was highly effective and safe. Moderna is expected to receive emergency approval for its vaccine in the coming days.
While the beginning of the vaccination process provided a shot of hope to a beleaguered nation, it comes while Covid-19 sweeps largely unabated across the country, including in Alabama, where more than 16 percent of the state's 301,533 cases have come in the last 14 days and officials have warned of the risk of the state's healthcare system becoming overrun by hospitalizations. Alabama also passed a grim milestone over the last week, with Covid-19 deaths rising to 4,124.
Lee County has also seen a rise in Covid cases, with close to 12 percent of the county's 8,857 total cases coming the past two weeks, as of Tuesday evening. Hospitalizations at EAMC and EAMC-Lanier have also trended upward and matched a pandemic peak of 62 on Wednesday.
"There’s a lot of excitement over the vaccine distribution beginning in the United States, but we all have to remember that large-scale distribution is still a few months away,” said Atkinson. “I say that because the vaccines do not address the current situation that hospitals find themselves in. Many are low on beds and more still are short of ICU beds.
"Vaccines are important for our long-term goal of ‘getting back to normal,’ but our short-term goal of reducing hospitalizations and deaths is best reached by compliance with mask-wearing, social distancing, and handwashing.”