UVA Health Begins COVID-19 Vaccinations for Frontline Staff

December 15, 2020 By Eric Swensen, ews3j@virginia.edu Eric Swensen, ews3j@virginia.edu

UVA Health began vaccinations Tuesday for employees at highest risk of acquiring COVID-19 through a work-related exposure, as a group that included doctors, environmental services workers and pharmacists received their first of two Pfizer vaccine doses.

“This is a big moment, and it’s a great feeling to take a step toward protecting myself from coronavirus or spreading it to my family and loved ones,” said Dr. Taison Bell, director of UVA’s Medical Intensive Care Unit, who was among the first staff members to receive the vaccine. “This pandemic has ravaged the nation and the world, particularly in Black and brown communities like the one I come from. This is the first time that I have genuine hope that we can turn the corner.”

UVA Health received just shy of 3,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in its initial shipment Tuesday morning. Starting to provide those doses to staff Tuesday afternoon followed an immense logistical undertaking that included purchasing two extreme deep freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine – which must be kept at very cold temperatures – and setting up a special vaccination clinic staffed with volunteers to deliver the inoculations.

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Dr. Taison Bell  high fives Justin Vesser after he receives his Covid-19 vaccination
Dr. Taison Bell high fives Justin Vesser after his vaccination. There were plenty of smiles and high-fives or fist bumps on Tuesday.

“I am so grateful to the teams from across the health system that have spent weeks preparing for the arrival of the vaccine. We were ready to begin vaccination the same day our initial shipment arrived,” Dr. K. Craig Kent, UVA’s executive vice president for health affairs, said. “We have 13,000 employees at the health system and look forward to the opportunity to vaccinate all of our frontline workers and thus create a safe environment for our patients.”

As they begin receiving the vaccine, UVA Health providers are also working to educate and reassure the public about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in advance of its wider rollout in the coming weeks and months. Both Bell and Dr. Ebony Jade Hilton plan to discuss their experiences receiving the vaccine on social media in the days and weeks ahead. 

“I want you to see me in real time as I undergo this process and as my body adapts to having this medicine injected into my arm,” said Hilton, an anesthesiologist and critical-care medicine specialist who also was one of the first UVA Health staff members vaccinated Tuesday. “I’m hoping that in that transparency, you will be able to make a better decision for you and yours about receiving the vaccine.”

UVA Health expects to receive additional doses within the next month, enabling additional groups of UVA Health team members to be offered the vaccine. Ultimately, COVID-19 vaccinations will be offered to the entire UVA Health team.

Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health will determine future phases of the distribution process. Following high-risk health care workers, distribution is expected to prioritize other essential workers, such as first responders, people with higher risk of significant health problems associated with COVID-19 and the elderly.

The CDC and the Virginia Department of Health are leading plans for distribution throughout Virginia. The logistical effort to distribute the vaccines in Central Virginia will involve multiple groups, including area hospitals, pharmacies and the Thomas Jefferson Health District (which in January will be renamed the Blue Ridge Health District). The University will communicate plans for distribution of the vaccines to faculty, staff and students and the broader community as additional details become available.

Hilton and Bell both encouraged the community to continue following CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – including mask-wearing and physical distancing – as the vaccine rollout gets under way.

“This is an event we will remember for the rest of our lives because it so dramatically upended society,” Bell said. “But this is the moment where we can change the outcome from mourning the lives lost to celebrating the lives we can save if we succeed.” 

Here are a few more photos from a historic day.

Patrick Washington pushing Pfizer vaccines on a hand trolley
Patrick Washington was part of a team unloading vaccine shipments Tuesday morning, moving the doses to a deep freezer.
Lynn combs opening a box containing the Covid-19 Vaccine vials
Medication procurement coordinator Lynn Combs opens a box of vaccine doses, to be kept cold until they are administered.
Person Pointing to a control label on the Pfizer vaccine
The boxes are equipped with GPS-enabled thermal sensors installed by Pfizer to track the location and temperature of each shipment.
Pfizer vaccine vials in the freezer
The first shipment arrived Tuesday; UVA expects more within the next month.
Pfizer vaccine vial
Each small bottle holds five doses of the vaccine.
Hla Kyi being vaccinated by Justin Vesser
Hla Kyi, a staff member in Environmental Services, receives the vaccine.
Healthcare worker drawing up Pfizer vaccine in a syringe
The vaccine represents a bright spot amid a dark time in the pandemic in the U.S.
Healthcare provider giving an injection to a patient
Pharmacist Danielle Yeago is among the nurses and pharmacists who have volunteered to administer vaccines.

Media Contact

Eric Swensen

UVA Health System