Coronavirus vaccine arrives locally

Judy Hurst administers the COVID-19 vaccine Monday to Priority Ambulance employee Daniel Allen at the Loudon County Health Department.

Regional Covenant Health facilities, including Fort Loudoun Medical Center, received the first shipments of the new Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Thursday as positive cases reach historic levels across the state.

The first round of vaccine distribution will be offered to employees working in environments that are considered high risk or high exposure to COVID-19. Receiving the vaccine is currently voluntary for staff.

The vaccine will be administered on a planned schedule at all Covenant Health acute care facilities. The vaccine also will be available for home health employees and employees who work in long-term care facilities.

An exact administration date has not yet been determined, according to a Covenant Health press release.

“We are grateful to begin vaccinating our team, and we received our first allocation from the state last week and began across Covenant Health,” Dr. Mark Browne, Covenant chief medical officer, said. “We have been able to give vaccines to all of our facilities across the region, and we continue our rollout in earnest as we continue to get vaccine supplies. I think for all of us, especially on that first day, it was pretty emotional. It really felt like the beginning of the end. All of our frontline workers are being treated equally, and we’re making sure that those at highest risk get the vaccine first. People are just extraordinarily grateful and hopeful going into the Christmas season.”

The mRNA vaccine teaches the body to make antibodies to fight the COVID-19 virus. According to Covenant Health, “there is no COVID virus in the vaccine, and it cannot give COVID to the vaccine recipient.”

The vaccine has specific requirements for storage and dosage. Covenant Health will follow these requirements to ensure the vaccine is administered safely in compliance with manufacturer and U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards.

Browne said numerous studies have shown the COVID-19 vaccine to be more successful than most flu vaccines.

“The big difference is that previous vaccines that have relied on an inactivated virus actually take a different virus like a cold virus or an adenovirus and they stick a protein on the outside of it that looks like COVID in this case,” he said. “It kind of tricks your body into believing it should create antibodies, and it’s part of the reason as to why the flu vaccines aren’t as successful as the COVID vaccine. These two new COVID vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines that basically teach your body to make antibodies to a portion of the COVID virus particle.”

The Loudon County Health Department administered first doses Monday afternoon to local first responders.

Teresa Harrill, health department director, said a timeline for vaccine administration for the public remains unclear.

Health care workers are ecstatic about the arrival of the vaccine.

“I’ve been to almost all of our facilities over the last few days, and I’m going to use a word that’s really important — there is now a huge sense of hope,” Debbi Honey, Covenant senior vice president and chief nursing officer, said. “I said this the other day when we gave our first vaccine, all these things we’ve been doing — masking, staying apart — it’s just a barrier and not the cure. What we have now is hope that we’ve had our first defense to wipe out this pandemic, and that’s the vaccine.”