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‘Few hundred’ medical staff receive COVID-19 vaccine at Tripler Army Medical Center

Tripler Army Medical Center (Jim Dung, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/WikiCommons)

A “few hundred ” Defense Department medical personnel who might come in contact with patients in the Hawaiian Islands have so far been given the first doses of Pfizer vaccine as of this morning, Tripler Army Medical Center officials said today.

Tripler was selected as one of 16 sites worldwide for a “controlled pilot ” program for the first vaccinations within what the Defense Department is calling a phased approach.

As the hospital began giving vaccinations Wednesday morning, medical personnel found there weren’t just five doses in a vial, but actually more like six or seven—which has been reported around the country.

Tripler and other hospitals raised the finding with U.S. health officials and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “was able to quickly look at this ” and OK the practice “and that basically is kind of a Christmas present for the whole health care system, ” said Col. Martin Doperak, commander of Tripler Army Medical Center.

With just that discovery, “we’ve increased the amount (of vaccine ) that we have by 20 %, ” said Doperak, a medical doctor. He also noted that there’s “still a long ways to go. Still a lot of people to offer the vaccine to.” Tripler said it supports a “beneficiary population ” of more than 140, 000.

The hospital held an outdoors news conference this morning and allowed a few photographers into the allergy and immunology clinic to observe some of what amounts to historic vaccination activity.

Tripler said it received a single-box shipment of Pfizer coronavirus vaccine Tuesday. The Pentagon has said the vaccine goes out in batches of 975 doses. Tripler said it could not reveal the number of doses it received due to operational security concerns, but characterized the shipment as a “small amount.”

Intensive care unit, emergency room and urgent care personnel, first responders and inpatient and outpatient health delivery and support personnel are the first individuals being vaccinated by the military in Hawaii.

Those voluntarily receiving the first of two doses of the vaccine are watched for 15 minutes to monitor for adverse reactions and then are expected to report any issues to medical personnel.

“The feedback has been—they were just glad to be there to be part of it, ” said Col. Ingrid Lim, deputy commander for medical services at Tripler. “I think most folks, any kind of effects are mostly the spot of the injection, the point of the inoculation, that’s a little sore the first day and then it goes away.”

She noted that Tripler just started the vaccination program and adverse effects including flu-like symptoms can come several days later “so we’ll be waiting to find out.”

Doperak said Tripler is “using what comes in as quickly as possible ” because even the first of two doses provides protection with numbers from 50 % to 70 % efficacy.

Tripler is scheduling the second dose—which is needed 21 days later—at the time of the first injection, “and if you don’t show up, we’ll be reaching out to you—OK, you are due for your second shot, come in, because that’s when you get the full immunity, and that’s really important, ” Doperak said.

Col. Ronald Aquino, chief of the logistics division at Tripler, said Tuesday’s shipment was “to test the logistics of getting vaccines here.” He added that “there’s a plan for subsequent shipment. We don’t have a timeline right now. (That’s ) still being worked ” along with the amounts that will be divided up among Defense Department components.

Doperak said Tripler will not be getting the Moderna vaccine, which is expected to get formal FDA approval Friday. Some 2.9 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine were approved for initial shipment. A total of 5.9 million doses of the Moderna vaccine are anticipated next week.

The Pfizer vaccine requires minus-80 degrees Celsius storage. Tripler initially was identified as the only facility on Oahu with such an ultra cold freezer, but since then, multiple hospitals on the island were able to procure the special freezers, Doperak said.

“There’s not the attempt to send us Moderna right now because there are too many other sites that can’t store stuff at this ultra cold (temperature ), ” the Tripler commander said. “So the Moderna is going to primarily go to those sites.”

Veterans Affairs in Honolulu is an example of a likely Moderna vaccine user.

“They could have tried to go buy a freezer, but they knew this other vaccine was coming out, ” Doperak said. “So they are waiting on this other vaccine, and that makes it easier for them as well because as you start going out to other islands, (Moderna ) is a little more temperature stable.”

Doperak said inoculations will continue through the weekend and are being expanded to outpatient clinic personnel who could come into contact with a COVID-19 patient.

Taking the vaccine is voluntary because it was approved under the FDA’s emergency use authorization. Tripler will continue with a tiered approach by offering the vaccine to other people in the medical system in the hospital as well as some undefined “critical national capabilities here on the island.”

“And once we get through that, then we get into the further phases where we’ve already started identifying people that are high risk to die from the disease, ” Doperak said. “So we’ve already had quite a few patients here at the hospital, most of them are older, that have suffered from (the virus ) and we’ve had quite a few patients die, unfortunately, from COVID.”

With the gravity of coronavirus in mind, Doperak said it’s “extremely, extremely exciting ” to see the vaccinations get under way.

“We’re hoping that what we’re seeing is the end of the virus—we’re seeing the beginning of the end of COVID, ” Doperak said. He admitted there is “still a lot of vaccine to be produced to be able to offer it. But again, (we’re ) at a very exciting time to see something that was created in such record time.”

People don’t really understand that “this is truly phenomenal that they were able to produce this in such a short period of time, that they were able to safely look at it and certify that this is a safe vaccine, ” he said.

“We are all watching history right now, ” Doperak said.

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