| Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Hear from one of the the first people in Wisconsin to receive the COVID-19 vaccine
UW Health respiratory therapist Chestina Schubert explains what it means to her to be the first in Wisconsin to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
On the day U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 300,000, respiratory therapist Tina Schubert became the first UW Health employee and one of the first Wisconsinites to be inoculated with the vaccine made by Pfizer and the German biotechnology firm BioNTech.
At 2:30 p.m., as the needle entered her left arm, she raised her right arm in triumph.
“I was excited. I felt hope that we’re getting a step closer to saving a lot of lives,” said Schubert, who has a husband and 5-year-old daughter. “It was an emotional moment because working as a respiratory therapist you see patients pass away from COVID. … It’s exhausting. You see patients struggle to breathe.”
UW Health in Madison received its initial shipment of 3,900 doses and expected to vaccinate only five to 10 of its employees on the first day, according to Matthew Anderson, UW Health’s senior medical director of primary care.
As the hospital receives more doses, Anderson said he expects to ramp up vaccinations to about 400 or 500 a day.
Wisconsin expects to receive 49,725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week. Soon after, the state should receive about 101,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Moderna as long as the company receives emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both vaccines require that people receive two shots, separated by a few weeks.
The first wave of vaccinations will focus on the state’s 400,000 health care workers as well as residents of skilled nursing facilities, who are expected to begin getting their shots near the end of December. Widespread availability of the vaccines is still months away.
“This is the most significant public health undertaking of our lifetime,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services.
In an announcement Monday, the department said Wisconsin lost a dozen more lives to the pandemic in the previous day, bringing the state’s death toll to 4,068.
Monday’s launch of the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history represents a major landmark in medicine. The vaccine was developed and approved for emergency use by the FDA in a year — the fastest in modern history.
Vaccines often take between 10 and 15 years to go through the development, testing and approval processes. Moreover, the vaccine developed by Pfizer and a second by Moderna both were found to be about 95% effective, well beyond what scientists expected.
“Last week, when I opened my briefing packet with the data, my hands were trembling and I got choked up,” said Gregory Poland, director of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “I’ve been in vaccines for four decades and I’ve never seen anything like this.
“This is a milestone in human achievement.”
Back in January when the virus began its rapid spread around the world, doctors and scientists doubted that a safe and effective vaccine would be ready by the end of 2020.
“I would have said that was a real, real long shot particularly to get one that achieves this level of efficacy,” said William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We’ve never seen anything like this. This vaccine was made during a terrible global pandemic.”
Producing and approving a safe and effective vaccine faster than ever before was the goal of Operation Warp Speed, which was established in mid-March by President Donald Trump.
Poland said the high level of effectiveness stretched across genders, age groups, races and ethnic groups. “This was as good in older people as it was in younger people. We don’t have vaccines like that.”
After receiving her shot, Schubert said she hoped to inspire trust in the vaccine, especially among African Americans who may be wary of inoculations.
“I wouldn’t take it if I didn’t believe in this vaccine and in the people who created it, the doctors and the scientists,” said Schubert, who is African American.
‘Vaccines that will save the world’
Poland said there remain some unknowns, including how long the vaccines will protect people from COVID-19. “We’ve had a few well-documented examples of people getting over it and getting reinfected.”
Nor is it known whether the vaccine can prevent people from becoming infected without showing symptoms, Moss said. The FDA’s emergency use authorization, which is not the same as full approval, “recognizes that there are still some unanswered questions,” he stressed.
Other questions yet to be answered include whether these vaccines are safe for a few specific groups, such as pregnant women and young children. Dose sizes may need to be different for children, Moss said, adding that he expects researchers will answer these questions in the coming months.
Poland said U.S. taxpayers have paid between $1 billion and $2 billion each for the vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna. They are, he said, “vaccines that will save the world.”
It is unclear just what proportion of Americans will need to be vaccinated before it will be safe for people to stand closer than 6 feet, attend family gatherings and restaurants, and perhaps even dispense with wearing masks.
Experts have estimated that isolation restrictions will be able to ease once about 70% to 80% of the population has been vaccinated.
At Johns Hopkins, Moss said he foresees a phasing-in process, in which smaller family gatherings are declared safe, then perhaps attendance at small restaurants or other venues.
“I suspect it may be longer before we allow 50,000 people into a sports stadium,” he said.
The COVID-19 vaccine was transported to ultra-cold storage freezers at UW Health, where it will be kept for distribution. The Department of Health Services said it is not announcing the location of distribution hubs around the state “for security reasons.”
In Madison, SSM Health said it expects to receive about 6,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday. The company reported that teams are finalizing logistical details and assembling vaccination supply kits that include syringes, record cards, sterile prep pads and other supplies used in the administration of vaccines.
SSM Health expects about two-thirds of the 6,000 doses to go toward vaccinating its own employees. The remaining third will be shared with other vaccine sites in Wisconsin.
On Monday, Wisconsin reported 2,122 new COVID-19 cases.
The average number of new daily cases over the last seven days was 3,509, a level on par with what the state was experiencing on Oct. 23. Cases rose rapidly reaching a mid-November peak of more than 6,500 per day. The seven-day death average of 47 is about what it was a month ago.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are down 35% statewide from a mid-November peak. Hospitals continue to struggle with staffing shortages as hundreds of health care workers quarantine at home after being infected or exposed to the virus.
Sophie Carson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this story.