In what’s hoped to be a turning point for the pandemic, Arkansas began administering a vaccine Monday for the coronavirus. It came just hours after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the state had received its first shipment of a vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech.
Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe and four other health care workers rolled up their sleeves or exposed their shoulders during a press conference at the Arkansas Department of Health to get the shot.
“This has been a terrible ordeal, not just in the United States, but around the world,” Bledsoe said. “To be here on this day and to see the fruition of all the labor of so many health care workers and so many scientists and researchers, it’s just an amazing thing to think about what, where we’ve been and where we are now. It’s just really encouraging. It makes me really proud.”
The arrival of the vaccine coincided with 45 additional deaths being reported by the state Monday. 23 of those were confirmed to be from COVID-19, with the other 22 categorized as probable deaths. That pushed the state’s death toll to 2,990 since the virus was first detected in Arkansas just over nine months ago.
Kelley Garner, the department’s Healthcare-Associated Infection program coordinator and epidemiology supervisor, had been involved in the investigation of the first diagnosed case in the state on March 11 in Pine Bluff. The governor declared a public health emergency that same day, but cases rapidly spread.
Asked how she felt as the needle was preparing to go in her arm, Garner said, “I’m excited. I know this is the first step to getting back to normal.”
Another epidemiologist getting vaccinated in front of the crowd of reporters was Megan Delong.
“We actually go into health care facilities that have outbreaks. That’s what my team does, so that’s why we were part of the people that were selected,” she said in an interview afterward. “It was very exciting to be one of the first.”
State health officials have been preparing for how to distribute a vaccine since it became clear that one was close to being approved. Priority is first going to frontline health care workers, as well as residents and staff in long-term care facilities. It likely won’t be available for the general population until next summer.
In the meantime, state Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said that the public needs to continue taking basic precautions.
“We actually now have a way of inducing immunity and protecting individuals from the COVID disease. We know that these masks, that social distancing and that washing our hands works, but this is really an active measure now that we can take and I think it’s a very important step forward,” Romero said.