'Significant milestone': Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine arrives in Tampa Bay

Millions of doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine are making their way across the U.S. to distribution centers across the country -- and one of those stops is Tampa General Hospital.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was on hand at Tampa General Hospital as the first shot there was administered to Vanessa Arroyo, a 31-year-old registered nurse. COVID-19 vaccinations also were administered to workers at UF Health Jacksonville, and Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County planned an afternoon news conference, saying an initial shipment would be used to inoculate front-line workers.

“Today, we will have shots going into arms,” said DeSantis, who signed the FedEx delivery that brought about 20,000 doses to Tampa General Hospital. “This is a game-changer. It’s a great day for the United States, it’s a great day for the state of Florida.”

Tampa General, UF Health Jacksonville, and Memorial Healthcare each received shipments of around 20,000 doses Monday morning. Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and AdventHealth in Orlando will receive shipments Tuesday, DeSantis said.

The so-called “Pfizer 5” will be provided to around 100,000 front-line workers at Florida hospitals. Overall, Florida will receive about 180,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with tens of thousands of doses being shipped to CVS and Walgreens pharmacies that have signed an agreement with the federal government to vaccinate residents and workers at long-term care facilities.

The Florida Department of Health has 20,000 doses, which will be distributed by Pinellas and Broward County health departments to residents and staff at long-term care rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes.

PREVIOUS: Pinellas County health department getting 10,500 vaccine doses; distribution could begin next week

While state officials and health care leaders were enthusiastic about the Pfizer Inc. vaccine finally arriving, they also cautioned it could be at least two months before COVID-19 vaccinations begin in the general population.

Florida has had more than 1.1 million coronavirus cases since the virus took hold, and nearly 20,000 residents have died.

DeSantis has focused heavily on vaccines providing an answer as he has come under fire for lifting many COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and refusing to impose a statewide mask mandate.

“We are getting this (the vaccine) at a good time,” DeSantis said Monday. “We think that if we get it to the right folks who are more likely to be hospitalized, we can continue to keep those numbers in line.”

John Couris,  president of Tampa General Hospital, called the arrival of the vaccine, which received emergency use authorization in the United States on Friday, monumental.

“We are ready, and it is absolutely game time. We will not let down this community. We will not let down our team. We are honored to be one of the hospitals leading this effort,” Couris said.

Meanwhile, at a news conference in Washington, the Trump administration said it expected emergency use authorization of a second vaccine from Moderna by the end of the week. It would follow a similar distribution pattern, stretching deliveries to 3,285 locations nationwide.

DeSantis said that he expects Florida to receive about 365,000 Moderna doses after the vaccine candidate receives emergency authorization, which is expected Friday. 

Charles Lockwood, the dean of the University of South Florida College of Medicine, stressed at the Tampa news conference that people should continue to socially distance, wear masks and avoid large gatherings as the virus continues to spread across the nation.

Lockwood called the approval of the vaccine magical, likening it to the moon landing.

“From a health care perspective, this is our magical Neal Armstrong moment,” Lockwood said.

The Pfizer vaccine must be kept at extremely low temperatures during shipping: -70 degrees. Tampa General Hospital said its three special ultra-cold freezers can store more than half a million doses at a time. 

Before it can be used though, they need to thaw it, which is one of the reasons why the hospital says it won't be offered on-demand.

Pinellas County says it should have the shipment no later than Wednesday. A lot of about 20,000 doses will be split between them. The vaccine will go to healthcare workers and nursing home residents.

“We now can really see that things are going to come to an end here, probably by the mid-point of 2021," said Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a public health professor and infectious disease researcher at the University of South Florida.  "We’re going to be able to put this in the rear-view mirror and it will be a bad memory, a bad piece of our history.”

RELATED: First US COVID-19 vaccinations given as shipments arrive nationwide

Federal health officials say the first shipment of nearly three million doses will be distributed in three phases.  On Monday, Pfizer's vaccine will arrive in 145 distribution centers across the country. Then an additional 425 sites on Tuesday and the remaining doses will be reaching 66 distribution centers by Wednesday.

"This is not the end," said Jared Moskowitz, Director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management. "We have a long way to go. Obviously, it will take a while to get this out."

The second phase of vaccinations is expected to begin in early 2021 and, provided there's enough supply, TGH said it'll go to:

  • Additional physicians or healthcare workers in direct patient care
  • People over 65 with underlying health conditions
  • First responders
  • Law enforcement
  • Essential workers including teachers, childcare providers, and food distribution employees. 

Hospital officials said, based on information they received from the CDC, the vaccine should be available to the public by this spring. 

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Gov. DeSantis' full press conference can be viewed below: