Health care workers receive Colorado’s first COVID-19 vaccine doses

Distribution challenges include ultra-cold storage, timing

With Gov. Jared Polis watching, right, Christy Ruffell, manager of clinic nursing standards at UCHealth Medical Center, left, gives an elbow bump to Kevin Londrigan, a respiratory therapist at UCHealth Medical Center, right, before giving him the very first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Colorado at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, in Fort Collins. The first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in Colorado to front-line health care workers in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Front-line health care workers at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins became the first in the state to get injected with the COVID-19 vaccine developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech.

The first dose was slated for Kevin Londrigan, a respiratory therapist who has underlying health conditions, according to a pool report.

“This has been a long, exhausting time coming,” Londrigan said. “The vaccine isn’t the end of it, but it is the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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The Fort Collins hospital will eventually receive 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine — about 8% of the state’s first order from Pfizer and BioNTech, which includes a total of 46,800 doses.

On Dec. 14, the hospital was planning to administer 20 doses, according to the pool report. UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs was planning to vaccinate another 20 workers.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Jared Polis and state health officials received the first shipment of vaccine doses from Pfizer. Polis personally signed for the delivery of 975 doses at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab just after 8 a.m.

Those doses were headed for Denver’s Rose Medical Center and Saint Joseph Hospital, while two other shipments arrived at hospitals in Boulder and Fort Collins on Monday morning.

Navigating uncharted waters

“I would say confidently the state has never had to do any kind of distribution campaign on this scale,” said Glen Mays, professor of health policy in the Colorado School of Public Health at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout represents the “largest-scale distribution of a new health technology globally that we’ve ever attempted as a human species,” added Mays, who chairs the school’s Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy.

Gina Harper, clinical coordinator with the pharmacy, looks at the color of the COVID-19 vaccine as she reconstitutes it before it is administered to the first patients in Colorado at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, in Fort Collins. The first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in Colorado to front-line health care workers in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)

Challenges with distribution of the Pfizer vaccine include a requirement for ultra-cold storage — a potential limiting factor when transporting doses to rural areas. The vaccine must be stored at temperatures between -76 degrees and -112 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment selected locations to distribute the Pfizer vaccine that have ultra-low temperature freezers. Some of the locations will also be redistributing vaccine doses to smaller health care facilities in their regions.

The state also purchased 10 ultra-cold storage units to be “as equitable as possible,” CDPHE said in a Dec. 11 statement.

Timing is another challenge: The state has asked hospitals to administer all vaccine doses within three days of receiving them.

“We need to be ready to hit the ground running,” Polis wrote in a Dec. 14 letter to health care facilities. “Our ability to quickly vaccinate prioritized populations and report those doses as administered to the Colorado Immunization Information System is paramount to Colorado’s ability to receive future allocations of COVID vaccine and end this public health crisis.”

Polis asked facilities to confirm they could administer the doses within 72 hours.

Once a vaccine dose is thawed and prepared, “the clock starts ticking” to administer it before it’s no longer usable, Mays said. “We really do not want to have any of these doses go to waste. I think that’s going to be the major challenge.”

First phase includes health care workers, long-term care facilities

The initial vaccine deliveries were shipped from Pfizer’s Michigan manufacturing plant after the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization on Friday. Another 95,600 doses of a vaccine developed by Moderna are expected to be shipped to Colorado beginning as early as next week, after the FDA authorizes that vaccine.

The December deliveries account for the first of two doses that people in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccination plan — which prioritizes health care workers who interact with COVID-19 patients, and long-term care facility staff and residents — will need to receive for maximum protection against the virus.

Health care workers who receive vaccines in Phase 1A include those who have at least 15 minutes of direct interaction, per day, with COVID-19 patients. Those workers will receive doses from their employer or a local public health agency. Meanwhile, long-term care facility residents and staff will receive vaccine through the federal government’s Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care Program.

Colorado hospitals prepare to receive first doses of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines

CDPHE isn’t requiring hospitals to mandate that their workers receive the vaccine, Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth, told Newsline on Dec. 11.

The state has had a “good experience with getting health care workers vaccinated for seasonal influenza,” Mays pointed out. “At this stage, the strategy is to leave individual health care facilities some flexibility.”

Still, he said, people should feel comfortable getting the vaccine.

“Here in the U.S., our vaccine approval process has some of the highest standards in the world,” Mays said, noting that the Pfizer trials have included tens of thousands of participants. “We can have very strong confidence that they’re safe and they’re effective.”

UCHealth will encourage those who are eligible to get vaccinated, but isn’t requiring them to do so, according to Barron.

If a health care worker believes they would qualify for vaccination in phase 1A and isn’t receiving the vaccine through their employer, they should contact the nearest vaccine distribution location for more information, according to a spokesperson for CDPHE. Coloradans can also call COHELP at 1-877-462-2911 for more information about where to get vaccinated.

Months remain before vaccine reaches everyone

In Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan, other health care workers and first responders will be able to receive the vaccine. Phase 1B includes workers in home health care, hospice and dental settings; plus emergency medical workers, firefighters, police, correctional workers, dispatchers and funeral services staff.

People in Phases 1A and 1B are expected to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses during the winter of 2020 and 2021.

Vaccination of people in Phase 2 is expected to take place in the spring, according to the state’s plan. This group includes:

• People 65 or older
• People of any age with obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease, significant heart disease, chronic kidney disease, cancer or who are immunocompromised
• People who interact directly with the public at work, such as grocery store workers and school and child care staff
• People who work in high-density settings such as farms and meat-packing plants
• Workers serving people who live in high-density settings
• Health care workers not included in Phase 1
• Adults who received a placebo during a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial

State officials don’t expect the vaccine to be available to the general public — adults ages 18 to 64 without high-risk conditions — until summer 2021.

Pool reporter Jessica Seaman of the Denver Post contributed to this report.

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