Moderna vaccinations begin for health care employees at UF Health in Gainesville

GAINESVILLE — University of Florida Health faculty and staff today began receiving a vaccine developed by Moderna, the second of two authorized vaccines upon which rest the hopes of ending a relentless pandemic.

At 10 a.m., Dr. David R. Nelson—senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health—took off his white coat, rolled up the left sleeve of his UF Health polo shirt and received an injection from pharmacist Carolyn Neal.

A small crowd of media and UF Health faculty and staff at the UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital applauded as he redonned his coat.

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“That was a piece of cake,” Nelson said.

And so opened the second chapter in what promises to become in the coming weeks and months one of the most common acts in medicine—administration of a COVID-19 vaccination.

The moment came eight days after the first vaccines by pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech were administered at UF Health in Gainesville. And it comes after UF Health Jacksonville on Dec. 14 became the first health center in Florida to administer Pfizer’s product.

Nelson acknowledged the pain and suffering endured by the communities UF Health serves and noted the exemplary work of the health system employees who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic.

“It’s been a long 10 months,” Nelson said. “And we have difficult months ahead of us. The coronavirus is still strongly circulating through the communities we serve. But step by crucial step, we’re moving toward the day when we can again work, play, travel, gather with loved ones, or simply enjoy a meal out with friends without the specter of the coronavirus threatening us.”

Admission specialist Emily Benitez received a vaccination not long after Nelson, joking afterward, “I’m still alive.”

These first vaccinations are recognized as important milestones in the fight against COVID-19, an illness that has directly or indirectly touched residents in every corner of the globe.

The Moderna vaccine was delivered to UF Health Shands Hospital on Tuesday, just days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization. The delivery came the same day as an additional 5,850 Pfizer doses arrived, supplementing the first 4,000 received in Gainesville last week.

In addition, UF Health Central Florida received 1,100 doses of the Moderna vaccine today. And while UF Health Jacksonville is yet to receive the Moderna vaccine, about 19,500 Pfizer doses have been delivered there, with roughly half of those distributed to other health centers in Duval County.

UF Health is following federal guidelines on which groups are to receive the first vaccinations. Health care workers around the nation have been among the initial recipients because their treatment of patients place them as high risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus.

The Moderna and Pfizer products are known as mRNA vaccines, meaning they use an artificial piece of the coronavirus’ genetic instructions to prompt the body to produce the coronavirus’ spike proteins. The immune system then targets those proteins, producing antibodies that confer future protection against COVID-19.

Neither vaccine introduces the coronavirus itself, so recipients cannot be infected with COVID-19 through its administration.

The vaccines are exceptionally safe. Relatively minor vaccine side effects are possible, from arm soreness at the site of injection to minor fever, chills and headaches. But those side effects are a sign that the body is mounting an immune response. In most cases, symptoms dissipate within 24 hours.

Anyone who gets the Pfizer vaccine must return 17 to 21 days later for a second shot, while Moderna’s requires a second shot after 28 days. They are not interchangeable.

While the two vaccines use mRNA, they are not identical and involve different designs, including of the lipids, or fats, the mRNA is encased in for delivery into the body. That’s one reason why the vaccines are stored at such different temperatures — Pfizer’s at a minimum of minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit, while Moderna’s can be stored at a relatively balmy minus-4 degrees.

Trials have shown that the vaccines are remarkably effective in preventing COVID-19: about 95% effective for the Pfizer vaccine, about 94% for Moderna.

While the vaccines were developed quickly, health care leaders say that is more a reflection of the resources allotted during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and not because of any safety shortcuts.

As 2021 progresses, these vaccines and possibly others will be made available to the wider community, from the elderly to people with medical conditions that make them especially susceptible to a severe case of COVID-19 and finally to the healthiest Americans.

“This is another historic and unforgettable moment for our community and for the UF Health Shands health care system,” said Ed Jimenez, CEO of UF Health Shands. “With unwavering determination, we’re going to get through this pandemic. We’re all proud to play our part today and in the coming months to get us all to better days.”

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