Courtesy of YNHHS

After nearly 10 months spent wrestling with the pandemic, five Yale New Haven Hospital employees were the first in the health care system to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine early Tuesday afternoon.

According to Yale New Haven Health System’s Chief Clinical Officer Thomas Balcezak, the system’s goal is to vaccinate at least 80 percent of its staff within the next six or seven weeks. YNHHS will vaccinate every employee who may come into contact with COVID-19 patients, regardless of their role — from health care practitioners to clerks who check in patients. More than 400 staff members will get the vaccine in the coming days, beginning with the front-line workers in the COVID-19 units.

“This vaccine is safe, it’s effective and it is the way out of this pandemic,” Balcezak said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday. “It is critically important that everyone in the state of Connecticut gets this vaccine, and across the country, because this is the way we will stop the spread of this pandemic and stop the spread of this disease.”

After thoroughly reviewing the data from Pfizer’s vaccine trials and attesting that results have met the statutory criteria, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the vaccine on Dec. 11. Since then, health care systems across the country have begun to immunize health care workers with the vaccine, which is 95 percent effective after two doses, the company found.

Among YNHH employees who received the first of two doses of immunization today were medical intensive care unit nurse Katherine Kay-Husler, emergency department nurse Mackenzie Kelly, environmental services associate Terry Naser, medical director of the YNHH medical ICU Jonathan Siner and infectious disease specialist Onyema Ogbuagu –– who also served as principal investigator of the Pfizer vaccine Phase 3 trial at Yale and leads several other COVID-related trials at the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation.

“As a researcher who worked on the vaccine, as an infectious disease specialist who has been on the front lines of caring for patients with COVID-19, as a dad of three kids who are never impressed by anything I do anyway, as a person of color, I think it’s been really gratifying to be a part of this process of the Pfizer vaccine,” Ogbuagu said.

According to the YNHHS Twitter page, YNHH’s batch of vaccines, which contained 1,950 doses, arrived shortly after 8 a.m. on Tuesday. Balcezak said that more shipments are expected later this week. The vials arrived in a thermal shipper that can store them in dry ice for up to 30 days. The YNHHS’ pharmacy has procured a special freezer to store the vaccine — which needs to be kept at ultra-cold temperatures — at -112 to -76 degrees Fahrenheit.

Naftali Kaminski, YNHH chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, said that while this vaccine ushers in renewed hope for the future and is “a huge victory to science,” it could be months before community immunity is achieved. While this milestone warrants excitement, it should not detract from the level of care and attention that the current public health situation demands, Kaminski told the News.

“The pandemic is still rampant in Connecticut, infections and hospitalizations are at peak levels, emergency rooms and medical intensive care units are beyond capacity, and deaths are on the rise,” Kaminski wrote in an email to the News. “We have multiple months until the vaccines affect the population at large, thus it is critical that the governor will impose enhanced restrictions to reduce infections, prevent deaths and ease the terrible load on our health care teams.”

Vaccinations may have begun, but YNHHS hospitals’ wards are still filled with hundreds of COVID-19 patients. As of Tuesday, there were 228 COVID-19 patients at Yale New Haven Hospital and more than 430 across the health system, according to YNHH President Keith Churchwell. Though the numbers are not as large as those seen during the pandemic’s peak in the spring, hospitals are now seeing more people with unrelated ailments who delayed their treatment due to the pandemic’s first wave. With these dual challenges, the current surge has been as intense as the first wave, Churchwell said.

According to YNHHS CEO Marna Borgstrom, the system has treated more COVID-19 patients than any other in the state. It has discharged over 6,000 recovered patients, while more than 600 have died from the disease across the health system. Since October, the YNHHS has seen a slow and steady uptick in the number of COVID-19 patients, Balcezak said.

Tina Nistico Capstick, a nurse at YNHH’s surgical ICU who helps in the medical ICU when it overflows with COVID-19 patients, said that the current wave of the pandemic has been harder to manage than the first because the public has been flouting public health measures despite continuing to witness the virus’ harmful effects.

“I see respiratory therapists, they’re stretched so thin, they’re tired,” she said. “The things they’re seeing … I don’t even know what kind of long-term effect that’s going to have on them mentally. You’re back in kind of adrenaline mode and you don’t really have time to stop and think about it, but it’s traumatizing.”

Throughout the Tuesday conference, the hospital’s leaders — Borgstrom and Churchwell — repeated that the vaccine is safe and effective, and they cautioned people to avoid listening to rumors that suggest otherwise.

The health system is also embarking on a campaign to encourage people across the state to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them. With a focus on at-risk residents and vulnerable populations, YNHH’s infectious disease specialists, nursing staff and laboratory partners will inform people of where the vaccine will be available, as well as its effectiveness and possible side effects. Clinical teams will administer vaccines locally through “access centers, pop-up clinics and mobile units,” according to the YNHHS website. The system is still in the process of figuring out exact details for widespread vaccination, according to YNHH Medical Director for Infection Prevention Richard Martinello.

Balcezak said that at least 80 percent of the public needs to receive the vaccine for community immunity to be attained.

“This is the beginning of the end of the pandemic, I hope, and we all need to roll up our sleeves, get this thing and move on,” Ogbuagu said.

Within the health system, Balcezak said that a survey of medical staff and employees showed that about 80 percent of the 4,000 respondents were willing to get the vaccine. Since Pfizer’s vaccine requires two doses administered 21 days apart, those who were vaccinated today are due to receive the other dose on Jan. 5.

As recently as last week, Capstick had some concerns about the vaccine because it was developed quickly and there had been limited information on it, she said. But she said that one of her coworkers addressed each of her worries and made her feel comfortable getting it.

The Pfizer vaccine does not contain the virus or any part of the virus. It functions using synthetic messenger RNA to stimulate an immune response and does not become integrated into a person’s DNA. The hospital has EpiPens ready in case someone has an allergic reaction, which only a very small proportion of Pfizer vaccine recipients have experienced.

Martinello explained that though people may be concerned because the vaccine was the fastest ever authorized, decades of research in molecular biology and innovation paved the way for its swift development.

Capstick is scheduled to get her first dose of the vaccine on Wednesday. Almost all of her coworkers cannot wait to get the vaccine and begin to get the pandemic over with, she said.

There are 1,269 patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state of Connecticut as of Tuesday evening.

Rose Horowitch | rose.horowitch@yale.edu

Maria Fernanda Pacheco | maria.pacheco@yale.edu