For a place that regularly receives thousands of doses of lifesaving pharmaceuticals, a shipment that arrived Thursday at New Hanover Regional Medical Center was one of its most important ever.
Nearly 3,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were delivered to NHRMC and inoculations were expected to begin Thursday afternoon.
"We have vaccine in-house. It's in our freezers now," NHRMC Chief Clinical Officer Dr. West Paul said during a Thursday afternoon media briefing.
As NHRMC began the process that will eventually see most of its 7,000 employees inoculated, a worker at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center became the first person in the area to receive the vaccine, which was approved less than a week ago for emergency use.
Madison Valenza, a certified nursing assistant at the Bolivia hospital, was one of three workers in the 30,000-employee health-care system to be innoculated. Novant Health is currently awaiting final approval of its recent purchase of NHRMC.
“I have been on the front lines in the special-care unit and am excited for this opportunity to help protect my son and grandparents,” Valenza said.
BMC received nearly 1,000 doses of the vaccine under a state plan that is distributing the first supplies to 53 hospitals for front-line employees working with COVID-19 patients and in the areas where infected patients are being treated.
“We are ready to go,” said Paul, who oversees clinical quality and safety for the NHRMC system. “At the very beginning of this pandemic our incident command center was pulled together to handle some of the unknowns. And we had a question, basically, when will this pandemic be over? And the answer was, when we have the vaccine.”
Neither NHRMC or NHBMC are requiring employees to receive the vaccine, officials said.
“It's not mandated here. It is encouraged,” Paul said. “We are doing as much as we can with information out to providers, out to nurses, out to everyone in the organization. This is what we think, this is what we would recommend, but we will not mandate.”
“Now that may change as we get more information over the next three or four months, and millions of people have this vaccine and see the safety is indeed what we believe it is, we may consider that, but not right now. This is completely voluntary.”
One of the challenges with the Pfizer-BioNTech is that it has to be stored in a special ultra-cold freezer. Paul said that NHRMC already had one such freezer in place and two units are being added to accommodate the larger shipments that are expected.
Although unusual for vaccines, Paul said NHRMC’s pharmacy routinely handles other medications that require ultra-cold storage.
The initial vaccinations are only a first step toward building immunity to COVID-19, an infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, a type of coronavirus that first appeared in late 2019 and has killed 300,000 Americans. (In contrast, the flu virus kills on average 34,000 to 43,000 Americans each year).
Researchers found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was about 50% effective against the coronavirus, with some protection beginning 12 days after the first dose. Three weeks after the initial dose, a second is given. Seven days after the second dose, the vaccine was 95% effective.
Because some side effects were reported in the trials, Paul said NHRMC is stratifying innoculations across departments to mitigate the impact any side effects could have on worker availability.
“We can't vaccinate an entire floor at one time because we may have, you know, 15% calling out at one time,” he said. ”So we are staggering some of that dosing, making sure we do maybe a quarter of that unit and then another quarter of that unit.”
Since the outbreak began here in March, New Hanover County has reported 8,435 cases of COVID-19 and 68 deaths. Brunswick County has reported 3,761 cases and 70 deaths and Pender County 2,362 cases and 20 deaths.
The next wave of shipments will be going to long-term care facilities enrolled in the CDC's Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care (LTC) Program, according to Jessica Loeper, chief communications officer for New Hanover County.
The county’s public health department is working with state and hospital partners to prepare for an efficient distribution of the vaccine locally over four phases, Loeper said on Monday.
“Subsequent deliveries of a COVID-19 vaccine will be for first responders, long term care and congregate living staff and residents, and people with two or more chronic health conditions, indicating high risk of complications from COVID-19,” Loeper said.
A Food and Drug Administration panel is expected to approve a second COVID-19 vaccine as early as Friday. It is made by the pharmaceutical company Moderna and has a protection rate similar to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.