Chestina Schubert COVID-19 vaccine

Respiratory therapist Chestina Schubert on Monday receives the first COVID-19 vaccine shot at UW Hospital.   

UW Hospital began vaccinating frontline health care workers on Monday after the hospital received thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine, the beginning of an effort to tamp down the pandemic.

The first, respiratory therapist Chestina Schubert, who is Black, said she wanted to inspire others to get the vaccine when it becomes available. Polls show that a relatively high number of Black people are skeptical of the vaccine.

"I want to inspire people, especially the patients that look like me and I take care of every day, that it's OK to get vaccinated, it's safe," she said.

UW Hospital received 3,900 doses on Monday. SSM Health St. Mary's expects a shipment of 6,000 doses on Tuesday.  

“Teams are assembling vaccination supply kits that include syringes, record cards, sterile prep pads and other supplies used in the administration of vaccines,” said Kim Sveum, spokeswoman for SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital. “We are also finalizing the logistical details needed to begin vaccinating our employees once the vaccine arrives.”

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The shipments come as the nation passes another grim milestone: 300,000 deaths due to COVID-19. In Wisconsin, which has seen a decline in rates of infection and deaths in recent weeks, COVID-19 has caused 4,068 deaths, 12 of them reported on Monday.

Sveum said SSM employees will get about 4,000 doses of the initial shipment. The remaining 2,000 doses will go to other vaccination sites in the state.

SSM St. Mary’s and UW hospitals are two of eight “hubs” in the state where the vaccines produced by Pfizer will be stored in ultra-cold freezers, both for use at those hospitals and at other sites.

The state on Monday received nearly 10,000 doses of vaccine and is expected to receive a total of 49,725 doses by Wednesday in the first wave of vaccine distribution.

The FDA last week approved Pfizer’s vaccine, setting the stage for the largest ever public vaccination program, which will take several months before communities across the country can achieve “herd immunity.”

The break-neck rollout has taxed officials overseeing the distribution of the vaccine effort, with few specifics from the federal government on how much vaccine will come in future shipments.

“Distributing COVID-19 vaccine is the most significant public health undertaking of our lifetime,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary for the state Department of Health Services, in a call Monday with reporters. “We are adapting this process on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day.”

The state is taking a phased approach to the vaccine distribution, with Phase 1A encompassing the state’s nearly 450,000 health care workers and residents at skilled nursing facilities, Phase 1B including essential workers and Phase 1C including those with high-risk medical conditions and people over 65.

Officials expect vaccinations of nursing home residents and staff to begin by the end of this month and be completed by the end of January. Later phases, which haven’t been officially defined, will eventually include the general public, but probably not until summer.

“As soon as we get one group done, we’ll start on the next group,” Willems Van Dijk said.

Those under 16 won’t be able to get vaccinated until clinical trials show the vaccines are safe for children.

Adding to the Pfizer shipment is 101,000 doses from drug maker Moderna scheduled to arrive next week, pending the vaccine’s FDA approval later this week. Both vaccines require a second dose, in three weeks for the Pfizer vaccine and in four weeks for Moderna’s.

The distribution is overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shipments are expected to increase weekly.

The Pfizer vaccine is being shipped to eight “hubs” in the state equipped with ultra-cold freezers it requires for storage. The Moderna vaccine doesn’t have the same temperature limitations, which potentially makes it a better fit for the rural parts of the state because it can be shipped directly to those administering it.

“The storage and handling of the Moderna vaccine is much simpler than the Pfizer vaccine,” Willems Van Dijk said. “It does not need to be held at these extreme sub-zero temperatures.”

The vaccine rollout will be accompanied by an amped up tracking system, which will include and opt-in smart phone app called V-Safe, which uses text messaging, web surveys about adverse effects from the CDC and reminders for the second dose.

Each dose that’s administered will also be reported to the Wisconsin Immunization Registry, which also includes other vaccines administered in the state. That allows the state to keep tabs on who is vaccinated and where they live to identify gaps in vaccine coverage.

The CDC is also keeping track of side effects and potentially adverse reactions to the vaccine with the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, already in place and used for other vaccines. Both patients and health care providers can report health information stemming from a vaccine.

“That is looked at on an ongoing basis and further investigation is warranted if something unusual pops up,” said Stephanie Schauer, program manager for DHS’s Division of Public Health Immunization.

Those receiving the vaccine can expect side effects, which could include fatigue, headaches, chills, muscle and joint pain, and irritation, redness or swelling at the injection site.

“That is part of the body’s response to the vaccine,” said Schauer. “That shows that your body is actually responding and will be providing protection.”

The federally purchased vaccines will be provided for free, with costs for administering them absorbed by insurers. Those without insurance will be able to get vaccinated at community sites at no charge.

When vaccines become more widely available, there will be a number of ways that people can get one. A good portion will be doled out by clinics and doctors.

“Well over half of the tests for COVID-19 have been done in the health care system, and we would anticipate similarly well over half of the vaccines will likely be given in the health care system as well,” said Willems Van Dijk.

Other vaccinators include many of the same pharmacies that provide flu vaccine, community clinics, and eventually mass vaccination sites run by state-contracted providers.

“We know the volume of people requiring vaccine is going to be too big for our health care system to handle,” said Willems Van Dijk.