Colorado received its first shipment of the coronavirus vaccine Monday morning, launching a months-long inoculation process that health officials hope will start to have meaningful effects on limiting transmission of the disease in the state by late spring.
A FedEx van delivered 975 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab in east Denver. The vehicle arrived at a loading dock at 8:05 a.m. Gov. Jared Polis was on hand for the delivery, personally signing for the suitcase-sized package.
“It’s the Pfizer vaccine arriving here in Colorado to end the pandemic!” Polis called out as Preston Riley, a FedEx delivery man wearing a purple and orange uniform, rang the freight-entrance doorbell and wheeled up the cardboard box.
Even Riley shared in the celebration.
“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” Riley said through a mask with the words “FedEx strong” printed on it. “Get our country back moving again.”
Polis, who was appearing at his first in-person event since testing positive for the coronavirus on Nov. 28, said it was an “exciting day.” He also called the delivery a “powerful and emotional moment.”
He helped Patrick Belou, a logistics coordinator in the state’s lab, wheel the package down a long hallway. The two then unboxed the white tray of vials, a process that included Polis pushing a button within the container to confirm receipt for Pfizer. The pair worked together to place the vials in an ultra-cold freezer for storage.
“This vaccine, once it’s widely distributed, will end this pandemic,” Polis said, adding that he trusts the vaccine is safe because the trials included so many people. He said Coloradans should expect side effects similar to a flu shot.
The doses delivered to the state lab are to be distributed to Rose Medical Center and Saint Joseph Hospital, both of which are in Denver.
Two other vaccine shipments were delivered to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Boulder Community Health on Monday morning.
At Poudre Valley Hospital, Polis watched Monday afternoon as the vaccine was administered for the first time in Colorado. Kevin Londrigan, a respiratory therapist who has underlying health conditions, was the first to be inoculated.
The governor cheered after a needle was plunged into Londrigan’s arm.
“This has been a long, exhausting time coming,” Londrigan said. “The vaccine isn’t the end of it, but it is the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Daphne Dubach, a registered nurse who works on the medical surgical unit at Poudre Valley Hospital, was the third person in Colorado to receive a COVID-19 shot.
“I think we’ll have a lot more confidence going in taking care of these COVID-19 patients,” she said. “And just feeling more comfortable going home at night to our loved ones.”
Nelly Eckhardt, an environmental services technician at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies who cleans and sanitizes patient rooms, was excited to be among the first to the receive the vaccine in Colorado. She has three kids and her husband is older, so she feels better being around her family after taking the vaccine.
“I did not expect it, but I was so excited and happy and I’m happy to be a good example for the community,” Eckhardt said.
Eckhardt, a Latina, believes that more work needs to be done to educate Latino communities in Colorado about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
“I just want to make sure that people understand that this is the way to get rid of this virus and there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “Everything’s going to be OK. … There has been research about this vaccine, so we’re going to be OK. If we want to save the world, we need to do it.”
Health care workers will be the first recipients of Colorado’s first batch of vaccines, totaling 46,800 doses. The additional doses are all expected to arrive this week, with more deliveries on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The vaccine must be administered in two doses over within a three-week period to be most effective, meaning the first shipment will only be enough to inoculate 23,400 people.
Nursing home residents and staff are also getting priority for the first doses of the vaccine, though they likely won’t start being inoculated until after Christmas, according to Brig. Gen. Scott Sherman of the Colorado National Guard, who is leading Colorado’s vaccine distribution task force.
“That program is a contract with both Walgreens and CVS in Colorado,” Sherman said. “They will receive the vaccine (and) actually schedule with the long-term care facilities to go into those facilities and start administering vaccine.”
It could be the summer of 2021 before the general public gets access to the vaccine.
A shipment of about 96,000 doses of the yet-to-be-approved Moderna vaccine is expected next week, state health officials said. The Moderna vaccine also must be administered in two doses within three weeks to be most effective.
Scott Bookman, CDPHE’s COVID-19 incident commander, was also on hand for the delivery. He said distributing the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at roughly -75 degrees Celsius, is a “huge logistical operation.” He said there are ultra-cold freezers at the state lab and facilities across the state that will be used to keep the vaccine at those extreme temperatures.
(The Moderna vaccine is easier to transport and store, as it can be kept at temperatures closer to that of a normal medical freezer, about 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Bookman said it will be much easier to manage.)
“Everybody is moving as fast as they can,” Bookman said. “Understand that this was authorized on Friday. We’re still getting more guidance as we speak.”
Bookman described the delivery as a “monumental day” and “absolutely historic,” but he cautioned that Colorado still has a long road ahead battling COVID-19.
“I know people want to move fast, but we have to be careful,” he said. “This is just the beginning of a very long road. This is the gateway to the end of this pandemic.”
Bookman added: “The masks, they’re not coming off for a while. We need to be patient.”
Polis marveled at the scientific achievement of developing and distributing a vaccine in such a short amount of time.
“This is also a triumph of modern science,” Polis said. “When you think about how long it took to get prior vaccines — like polio and others — to market. Years, even decades, some of them. This one was done in record time.”
Polis said he hoped the milestone will inspire a “whole new generation” of young people to become scientists. “You got to witness real history today,” he said to those gathered at the state lab.
As he touted the achievement, the governor also nodded to the damage coronavirus has caused to Colorado, including the more than 3,000 who have died from the disease.
“For them, the vaccine (has) come too late,” he said. “But for others, people that will be with us for decades to come, their lives will be saved because of the vaccine that’s arrived here today.”
Asked if the arrival of the vaccine is a weight lifted off of him, Polis said yes.
“As leader, a lot of this has been on my shoulders,” he said. “But this has been on the shoulders of every Colorado family — whether you got COVID or not, whether you personally lost somebody or not. The economic, the social impact, the psychological impact — this has been a very tough year.”
Saja Hindi of The Denver Post contributed to this report.