University of Washington: In pandemic milestone, UW brings COVID-19 vaccines to frontline health care workers

On Dec. 14, the first vials of COVID-19 vaccines arrived at Harborview Medical Center. Steve Fijalka, director of pharmacy services at UW Medicine, is pictured here taking a case of vaccine vials out of a box packed with dry ice.Mark Stone/University of Washington

In a deep and dark December, an eagerly awaited event brightened the early morning in a UW Medicine loading zone. The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccinations had arrived.

The 3,900 doses had been marked priority boarding for their FexEx flight to Seattle, after being trucked in insulated, dry ice containers out of a Pfizer BioNTech facility in the upper Midwest.

UW Medicine prepared for weeks to receive and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, which are now shipped on a staggered schedule and which also includes the Moderna vaccine. UW Medicine collaborated with state and local public health offices to follow national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in determining the line-up for getting vaccinated.

The first scheduled to receive vaccinations were frontline personnel working with COVID-19 patients. In addition to patient-care staff in intensive care units, COVID acute care floors and emergency departments, the immediate list also included environmental services staff, as well as emergency medical responders in the community. Next in line are nursing home residents and their caregivers.

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What you need to know about COIVD19 vaccines

Dr. Shireeshy Dhanireddy, an infectious-disease specialist at Harborview Medical Center, was among those at UW Medicine who led the overall planning for the UW Medicine vaccination program.

Early vaccination of healthcare staff keeps a workforce vital for saving lives from contracting COVID-19, even a mild case, that could put them out of commission for a couple of weeks, when hospitals are already short staffed due to the pandemic surge. Dhanireddy explained that immunizing frontline healthcare workers helps safeguard the lives of vulnerable populations.

“This is a way to protect not just ourselves, but our community,” she said.

UW Medicine pharmacies, operations and many other hospital departments are part of managing and protecting the vaccines before they head up to the vaccine clinics and into the shoulders of employees. For example, ultra cold deep freezers were leased by UW Medicine for keeping the highly perishable vaccines. The vaccines stay at minus 70 degrees Celsius until they are thawed shortly before administration.

UW Medicine staff and the institution’s community partners will qualify for the vaccine in waves as the campaign fans out beyond the frontline healthcare workers essential to the care of COVID patients.


UW Medicine pharmacist Fetiya Omer holds up a COVID-19 vaccine vial.Mark Stone/University of Washington

Despite months of getting ready, the vaccine didn’t seem real to Steve Fijalka, UW Medicine’s chief pharmacy officer, until he held one of the boxes to be transferred from UW Medical Center-Montlake to our other UW Medicine hospitals. He was greeted with quizzical looks from his colleagues when he sped by them on his way to the loading dock and said, “Happy vaccine day!”

The next morning, UW Medicine held a First Shots news media event during which the vaccine was given to 13 frontline healthcare workers. They represented the four UW Medicine hospitals and various frontline pandemic healthcare workers at UW Medicine and among emergency responders, including Medic One and Airlift Northwest.

One of the frontline healthcare staff participating in the event was Amy Fry, a critical care nurse at Harborview’s COVID-19 ICU. She received the inaugural shot of vaccine from UW Medical Center-Montlake cancer unit nurse Allison Miller. Fry told news reporters she felt honored to be chosen for the vaccination program launch and afterward felt hope, something she had not felt in a while. Miller was grateful that vaccines were becoming available, bringing closer the horizon when her baby, born earlier in the pandemic, would be able to meet their relatives in person.

Myo Thant, a patient care technician at UW Medical Center-Montlake was excited at the prospect of vaccination. “We have seen so many struggle. This is what we’ve been waiting for a long, long time and now it’s a dream come to reality.”

Jules Mack, a respiratory therapist at Harborview, said she was excited to receive the vaccine, “I was thinking, yes! We’re going to get these doses in, we’re finally going to get that extra measure of protection.” As a person of color, she said she understands that it can be challenging to go into a hospital and not see staff members who look like you.

“But I’m one person saying that this vaccine will prevent you from getting the serious type of COVID and passing away from this,” she said.

Emily Agudo, an emergency department nurse at UW Medical Center-Northwest, said, “I think it’s important to be one of the first people who gets it just to show that yes, it’s new and it might be scary but it’s my job. Even if there’s 24 hours where I don’t feel great, I’d rather have that than COVID.”

Several others receiving the first shots said that, by doing so, they, too, wanted to be role models for the public. From their frontline vantage point, they can vouch to the importance of getting the vaccine when your turn is offered.


Amy Fry, a nurse in the COVID-19 ICU at Harborview Medical Center, gets the first vaccination from Allison Miller at UW Medical Center on Dec. 15.Mark Stone/University of Washington

Vaccine clinics for frontline UW Medicine staff members are underway at UW Medical Center’s Montlake and Northwest campuses, Harborview Medical Center and Valley Medical Center in Renton.

Joining the faculty and staff who have volunteered to work at the vaccine clinics are students from the schools of medicine, pharmacy and nursing. Dental students are also learning vaccine protocols so they, too, can participate.

“Honestly I felt lucky to be a part of the vaccination effort. It felt like the first time all year that we as a community were able to actively combat this pandemic, and have hope for what follows,” said Ryan Breske, a nursing student who worked at UWMC on Dec. 21 administering COVID-19 vaccines.

Breske was among dozens of faculty and students from the School of Nursing who have been activated to provide vaccinations at hospitals, clinics and public health agencies across the region.

“Holding my first vial of the Pzfizer COVID vaccine felt like I was holding liquid gold,” said Kendra Nguyen, a UW School of Pharmacy student and director of Pharmacy’s Operation Immunization. “Ten years from now, I can look back and say I did something meaningful during this world-wide pandemic.”

Nguyen participated in a vaccination effort set up by Public Health—Seattle & King County.

“We’re proud our students are a part of this important public health effort, and we’re excited to see them utilize their training and preparation as immunizers. They are ready and qualified to meet this momentous challenge,” said Peggy Odegard, professor and associate dean at the School of Pharmacy.

Packaging for the COVID-19 vaccine.Mark Stone/University of Washington

Many medical students and physician assistant students at the UW School of Medicine have also signed up to help with the UW Medicine vaccination program and the vaccination of emergency responders. Others will also be volunteering with Public Health—Seattle & King County for future COVID-19 vaccination events. The students are participants in the medical school’s Service Learning Program.

Victorya Piehl, a third-year medical student, was another recent volunteer.

She said, “I am thankful to have been a part of this historic event. It was an honor to provide vaccinations to some of our incredible first responders.”

Liam Malpass, a graduate nursing student who administered COVID-19 vaccines at a Public Health—Seattle & King County site, added: “So many of us who work in health care have been waiting nine exhausting months for this moment and our hope has been reignited as we start to turn the corner on this pandemic.”

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