Surrounded by colleagues underneath a tent that protected them from the freezing rain, Dr. Ajay Kumar rolled up his sleeve as a nurse cleaned the upper part of his arm with an antiseptic wipe.
“Here we go, number one,” someone shouted.
Marylou Oshana, a clinical supervisor at Hartford Hospital, then uncapped a prepared syringe and injected Kumar with a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine. It was immediately followed by clapping and cheering from the small crowd.
The moment Monday morning in Hartford marked one of the first COVID-19 vaccinations in Connecticut and in the country after months of expedited vaccine development and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization last week.
“It’s beyond my wildest dreams that where we’ve been and where we are in nine short months is … literally nothing short of the equivalent of putting a human being on the moon,” said Dr. Patrick Troy, division chief of pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine at Hartford Hospital.
Connecticut hospitals, health systems and nursing homes will begin vaccinating their workforce and residents during the state’s 1A distribution phase as more shipments of doses arrive throughout the next two weeks. Health experts are urging people to continue taking precautions against the coronavirus as the vaccine rollout continues.
“We got a lot of wearing the masks to do, we got a lot more being careful to do,” said Gov. Ned Lamont, “especially during this holiday season, especially when people tend to gather and perhaps let their guard down.”
The state reported an additional 7,231 positive cases since Friday. More than 1,200 people are hospitalized, and 81 more people have died.
Pfizer’s vaccine requires two doses at 21 days apart and has been shown to be about 95% effective. A potential vaccine by Moderna, another front-runner with high efficacy that could get authorization this week, will require two doses given at 28 days apart.
Hartford HealthCare received 1,950 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in a shipment that arrived in Hartford shortly after 9 a.m. Monday. Initial doses were given to 15 workers in cleaning services, respiratory therapy, food services, critical care, nursing and other departments.
Kumar is chief clinical officer of the health care organization.
“Personally, I feel very privileged to be part of this history at this time,” he said.
Results from a Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that about 61% of people in the United States are willing to get vaccinated. But that leaves a significant portion of the population wary and unconvinced of the new vaccines.
“We want to make sure that individuals understand how things are happening, what adverse effects are happening, if there’s any,” Kumar said. “So I think regular communication and explaining is going to be key, and maybe repeating ourselves multiple times, and that’s OK.”
Benjamin Koomson, an emergency room patient care associate, said he was hoping to lead by example.
“I know a lot of people are very skeptical about the vaccine,” he said just minutes after getting his first dose. “And seeing me take it and being healthy will hopefully make them take it, because I want things to get back to normal.”
Health experts emphasized the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. A small percentage of people may experience temporary mild side effects like soreness at the injection site, chills, aches and possibly a fever.
It was the vaccine’s safety profile that convinced Ewelina McDade to get in line for a vaccine. She’s a nurse manager at The Hospital of Central Connecticut and MidState Medical Center. Her wife also works as a front-line health provider as an emergency medicine physician.
“I’ve seen my colleagues go through tremendous amount of work over the last nine months, and really it feels great to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
Officials from other large health care organizations, Yale New Haven Health and Trinity Health Of New England, said they expect to get shipments of nearly 2,000 doses on Tuesday and begin vaccinating workers the same day.
Dr. Syed Hussain, chief clinical officer at Trinity, said the system includes about 11,000 workers. Staff who work closely with COVID-19 patients will get priority.
“We anticipate that by the end of the month, early January, we would have had enough vaccine to vaccinate all our health care colleagues,” he said.
Additionally, Hussain said Trinity will also be storing vaccines for other community health providers and sites that may not be affiliated with large health systems, and helping vaccinate those workers.
At an afternoon media briefing Monday, Lamont said Connecticut should receive 129,600 vaccines by the end of next week, which will go to workers and residents in hospitals and health sites, federally qualified health centers, local health departments, pharmacies and nursing homes.
Lamont estimates that about 1 million people comprising mostly front-line responders and people aged 65 years and older will be completely immunized by the end of March.
Connecticut Public's Ali Warshavsky contributed to this report.