COVID-19 vaccines arrived at Tennessee hospitals Thursday in the darkest days of the pandemic so far. Even as they began inoculating their frontline staff, they are seeing the sickest patients yet.
Middle Tennessee hospitals are celebrating the vaccine’s arrival, even if it was a few days later than expected.
The three biggest health systems in Nashville each received allotments and immediately started vaccinating employees. Vanderbilt University Medical Center held a ceremonial vaccinating of its first five employees, all who work directly with COVID patients. Gov. Bill Lee attended the event and stressed that the hope of the vaccine doesn’t resolve the dire situation Tennessee finds itself in, leading the nation in new cases.
“This vaccine will not cure foolish decisions about how we gather,” he says. “It won’t not cure an attitude of a refusal to wear a mask, and it won’t cure the idea that, ‘I will take my chances and that it will not impact someone else’s life.'”
Ascension Saint Thomas sent out pictures and video of workers getting the first doses, and HCA TriStar invited media to watch as hundreds filed through for vaccines.
But on the same day, hospitalizations statewide surged further yet, to nearly 2,900. A record-shattering 177 fatalities from COVID were reported for the day.
The hope is that immunizing nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists will keep so many from having to call in sick with COVID or because of quarantining. Staffing has largely been what has hampered hospital capacity in recent weeks. It’s even becoming an issue in vaccination, since some people may experience side effects that could keep them from coming to work for a day or two.
But on the whole, the vaccine is an emotional lift for those who are getting it. Skyler Howard is a 23-year-old critical care nurse at TriStar Southern Hills who has taken care of COVID patients since March.
“I know that we have a long fight ahead of us,” she says. “But we know that there is a potentially an end in the future and that gives you the juice to keep going.”
The worst still is likely yet to come for Tennessee. Hospital staffing concerns may decrease, though not until they get their second vaccine doses in January. But with patient numbers increasing each day, hospitals are beyond what they would have said months ago was their breaking point.
By the numbers
With the first batch, Vanderbilt expects to inoculate nearly 9,000 employees. Ascension and TriStar have not revealed their dosage numbers.
Several hospitals did not get early doses. State officials say this was primarily to avoid any waste. Each box of Pfizer vaccine contain enough for nearly a thousand doses, and must be kept at extremely low temperatures. The state decided it was easier to limit distribution to 28 sites. Those sites will serve 74 hospital staffs.
But Nashville General Hospital did not receive any; the safety net hospital has fewer than a thousand employees. Sumner Regional Medical Center, which has been in the thick of treating COVID patients since March, also didn’t make the cut.
Tennessee is still in line to get another round of vaccines from Moderna next week. It will include about twice the number of doses as this week’s shipments from Pfizer. It is supposed cover the rest of the state’s hospitals, though not everyone who works in those hospitals.
All county health departments will also get some of the Moderna vaccines, which don’t have to be kept as cold as the Pfizer doses. Those vaccine should start to reach first responders, along with nursing home staff and residents. The state says local health departments will oversee those vaccinations and will let people know when it’s time to line up.
But the situation remains fluid. Some states, like Iowa, have been warned that they may not get their full allotment right now. Moderna’s doses are supposed to start showing up in Tennessee on Monday. But Pfizer vaccine was to arrive this Monday and instead came Thursday.
One bright spot on the numbers is that Tennessee may be able to stretch its 56,000 Pfizer doses to 66,000 or more. There’s more vaccine in the vials than pharmacists planned on. And instead of five doses per vial, they’re able to draw out six, sometimes seven, which the Food and Drug Administration is allowing to be used.