‘A huge relief’: Local hospitals receive first shipments of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine

The first vaccine shipment arrived at the Iowa City VA Health Care System Tuesday morning, and vaccinated its first 10 employees that afternoon. For many health care workers, the vaccine is a welcome relief, but with distribution set to take months, many urge continued social distancing.


Shivansh Ahuja

Kurin Phillips a registered nurse in the ICU is vaccinated at the Iowa City VA Health Care System Tuesday.

Sarah Watson, Executive Editor

Juan Vega, 34, knew the vaccine was coming. He’s worked as a housekeeper for the Iowa City Veteran’s Affairs Health Care System in its 12-bed COVID-19 ward, the only one at the veteran-care hospital, for the past 11 months of the pandemic. 

As he was injected with the vaccine, he said he was “feeling good,” and that it felt routine, like getting an annual flu vaccine. One of 10 employees to be vaccinated on Tuesday, Vega sat down in a social-distanced section of chairs in a former physical therapy room to be monitored for 15 minutes in case of any adverse reactions. There were none. 

“It’s about protecting other people from myself if I’m an asymptomatic carrier,” Vega said as he sat in the waiting area. “I’ve been working with the coronavirus floor the entire duration of the pandemic. So, it’s no longer about me, but it’s about protecting everybody else from myself.”

Area hospitals received shipments of the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday, the second COVID-19 vaccine to be approved in the last two weeks by the Food and Drug Administration and distributed. For many hospitals, the Moderna vaccine offers vaccine reinforcements on top of the Pfizer-Moderna version for often overworked hospital staff caring for COVID-19 patients. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, which received the first shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines last week, has already vaccinated 1,583 employees, more now than employees that have tested positive. 

The Iowa City VA received about 1,600 doses Tuesday morning of the Moderna vaccine, and expects to vaccinate the rest of its employees starting next week.

Vega suits up with proper PPE every day for work — gown, booties, clear face shield and masks — and says as an army veteran himself he can provide that moral support without “poking and prodding patients.” 

It’s a role he’s stepped into even more because of limited visitors to COVID-19 patients. 

“Because of the nature of COVID, a lot of people don’t want to be around COVID, so for me, it means a lot to treat them like a normal person,” Vega said. “‘Hey, how are you doing? You need anything or feel alright? It makes people feel like you know, maybe this isn’t such a scary thing. Maybe this too will pass.”

Chief Pharmacy Officer Traviss Tubbs said the VA was slated to receive more doses of the Moderna vaccine because the Moderna vaccine is easier to transport than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which must be kept at negative 70 degrees Celsius. 

“We wanted something that can be transported more easily,” Tubbs said. “So something that’s frozen, which is Moderna, but not negative 70 frozen like Pfizer, we can move that around easier. Moderna also has, I believe up to a 30 day refrigerated allotment. And so therefore, that will actually help us to in the future be able to move it to other locations, and serve some more of our veterans who can’t afford to travel here.”

The veteran-care facility inoculated 10 employees on Tuesday and will do a large-scale employee vaccination starting Dec. 28, after most employees return from holiday time off, Tubbs said. About 1,300 VA Health Care System employees signed up to receive the vaccine, and Tubbs expects to utilize shipments of both vaccines to vaccinate all the employees who’ve requested it over the next few weeks. 

It’s unclear yet when the VA will be able to vaccinate patients and veterans, but Tubbs expects by mid-January it’ll have enough shipments to begin distribution to veterans outside the hospital.

RELATED: University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics first hospital in the state to receive COVID-19 vaccine

“This is a huge relief,” Tubbs said.  “…we finally have a tool in our arsenal that we can actually do something with, it will take several months to get there. But we’re finally starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Pat Kearns, who works as a registered nurse on the COVID-19 unit and received a vaccine Tuesday, has cared for well over 100 COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began. He said he’s grateful for “another layer of protection” for himself, his family, friends, and coworkers. 

He compared the moment to the Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago — which infected a third of the world’s population, killed some 20-50 million people globally, and faded without a vaccine.

“We look back on 1918, and there was never that ‘aha’ moment for them,” Kearns said. “That epidemic just kind of burnt out with good public health activity. And they never had that moment of, ‘Oh, this is the beginning of the end.’ And I think that we’re having that moment now.”

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics received 1,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday, said Mike Brownlee, chief pharmacy officer at UI Health Care. He said UIHC would finish using their current allotment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before starting to use the Moderna doses.

Based on availability of vaccine doses, the hospital anticipates starting to vaccinate staff in the second prioritization group within a week, Brownlee added.

“We have an aggressive timeline to safely vaccinate all of our team,” Brownlee said. “Adding doses will just allow us to consistently and efficiently vaccinate staff.”

Iowa is expected to receive 20 percent fewer vaccinations than initially planned, the Iowa Department of Public Health alerted the public last week, because of an “unintentional planning error,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters Tuesday. Reynolds said that more than 8,000 vaccines have already been administered across Iowa. 

Mercy Iowa City received its doses of the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday as well — the hospital network began vaccinating employees Tuesday after being shipped 200 doses. 

Storage complications for the ultracold Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine meant the Iowa City hospital won’t receive the first-out-of-the gate vaccine until next month.

Aaron Scheinblum, spokesperson for Mercy Iowa City, said the Hospital Foundation donated a freezer that kept temperatures that could store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but the new freezer wouldn’t arrive until January.