KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The first shipment of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine arrived Thursday morning at UT Medical Center.
For something so important, the vaccine arrived around 8 a.m. in a medium-sized white box that didn't appear to weigh that much. It was easily lifted from the back of an SUV onto the loading dock at UT Medical Center and was received with applause from the few people gathered to watch.
One of those gathered to watch the arrival was Dr. Mark Rasnake, UT Medical Center hospital epidemiologist and infectious disease physician. He said after nine months of battling the pandemic and months of preparation for the vaccine, it was an extremely emotional moment.
"It's the best Christmas present you can get," he said. "It means hope for people at the hospital."
Inside that simple white box was a sophisticated storage system that was packed in dry ice. There was a tracking device inside that communicated directly with Pfizer so it could be monitored during shipping to ensure it stayed at the correct, ultra-cold temperature that is required.
Rasnake said UT will start administering the vaccine to its most at-risk employees -- the ones in the COVID-19 unit. It's not just doctors and nurses. They will also include housekeeping and nutrition staffers who enter the rooms of patients with COVID on a regular basis.
He said those people have been living with the risk every day. Despite the precautions they take, the PPE and the hygiene protocols, mistakes can happen no matter how careful they are.
In addition, they are living with the risk of community spread when they are outside the hospital, just like everyone else.
Rasnake said it's vital to keep those front-line providers safe to help others right now.
"When you have immunity from a vaccine, you wear that 24 hours a day," he said.
UT does not have enough vaccine in this first shipment to immunize everyone, but they should be able to get it to the highest risk employees in the next few weeks. The first shots will be administered Thursday afternoon.
Once this supply is exhausted, UT expects another shipment in three weeks to cover the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine that is required for effectiveness.
He said he has complete faith in the vaccine. He was part of the local vaccine trial and learned Wednesday that he had received the actual vaccine, not the placebo.
He said he experienced mild symptoms, like fever, chills, and fatigue, but that's to be expected.
"That's a sign that the immune system is responding well," he said, saying he treated his symptoms with ibuprofen and recovered quickly.
He understands that some people are hesitant about taking the vaccine, but he urges people to reach out to their trusted doctors and friends who work in healthcare.
There is a lot of misinformation being spread on social media, he said. He is confident the vaccine is safe.
The Pfizer vaccine was found to have a 95% efficacy rate, which he called remarkable.
"No one really expected it would be that high," he said.
Very few vaccines that are already in use are that effective. He said the vaccines for measles and hepatitis A are in the 90% range, but the flu vaccine can be anywhere from 30% to 50% effective in a given year, and we know it saves lives.
There is a chance for an allergic reaction, but that is not unexpected and is most likely in people with a history of an anaphylaxis reaction, similar to how people with peanut or bee allergies can react if they are exposed.
An administration of epinephrine can quickly control those reactions. UT will closely monitor anyone who has a history of allergic reactions and is positioned to respond quickly.
Rasnake said the vaccines are the best way for us to return to normal, and he encourages everyone to take it when it is available to them.
The first doses will go to health care workers, long-term care facilities and first responders.
Next up, people with high-risk pre-existing conditions like cancer patients.
Then, most of us will start receiving the vaccine in phases two, three, and four.
Covenant Health expects to receive its supplies Thursday and plans to start vaccinating doctors and nurses Friday morning.
Blount Memorial Hospital is expecting its supplies this week.
The Knox County Health Department said it will have doses next week.
Tennessee is expected to receive 58 trays of the Pfizer vaccine. One tray equals 975 doses. The state has received one tray early that has been set aside for emergencies.
One box of the vaccine equals 100 doses. Tennessee has reserved 50 boxes or 5,000 doses.
Health departments and hospitals across Tennessee that did not receive the Pfizer vaccine will receive the Moderna vaccine, which was also observed to have nearly a 95% efficacy rate in its trials. It is expected to be approved this week.