Employees of the Mercy hospital system made history Monday afternoon as the first in the St. Louis area to receive doses of the federally-approved COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Aamina Akhtar, an infectious disease specialist and the chief medical officer of Mercy Hospital South, was the first in the region to get a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine since it was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration late last week.
“We have been eagerly waiting,” Akhtar said after getting the first of the vaccine's two-doses at the Sappington hospital Monday as hospital staff cheered and applauded. It was "just like my flu shot," she added.
The shot began the first wave of local vaccinations — available exclusively for frontline health care workers — and marks a new phase of the pandemic which has already killed more than 2,500 people in the St. Louis metro area alone.
On Monday, shipments of the Pfizer vaccine also arrived in Illinois and thousands more doses were expected at area hospitals and assisted living facilities in coming days.
Nicole Boyer, an ICU nurse at Mercy South, was among the 20 staff members at her hospital to be vaccinated Monday, along with 20 employees at Mercy Hospital St. Louis who also recieved doses that afternoon.
Boyer didn’t know she would get the vaccine until she arrived at work that morning, she said. She was often afraid to go into work in the early days of the pandemic and said lately her unit has seen more critically ill patients with COVID-19 than ever before.
“I still get scared,” she said.
Boyer said she hopes everyone will get vaccinated when they can to take the stress off hospital units like hers that have been at or near capacity around St. Louis for weeks.
“I can kind of see a light at the end of the tunnel now,” she said.
Mercy South is expecting to receive just under 3,000 doses in its first round. The entire, four-state Mercy system is expecting approximately 24,000 doses in its first distribution.
While some Mercy facilities have already received doses, spokeswoman Bethany Pope said Monday others are expected to receive shipments throughout the week.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine on Friday night. The move allowed for distribution of the vaccine for individuals 16 years and older, and shipments of doses began to arrive across the country Monday.
Under Missouri's three-phase vaccination plan, the first group to receive vaccinations will be healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents and staff.
Future phases are expected to include essential employees, including first responders and teachers, and then those at highest risk for COVID-19 complications. Officials have said it will be months before vaccines are available to the general public.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Service expects about 51,675 doses to arrive in the state this week, department spokesperson Lisa Cox said Monday. Those doses will be split between 21 hospitals across the state that are able to store them at the required temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
BJC HealthCare is expecting its own vaccine doses to arrive between Monday and Wednesday, with first vaccinations expected to start by the end of the week, spokeswoman Laura High said Monday. The system is expecting 9,750 vaccine doses.
St. Luke's Hospital and SSM Health are both expecting vaccine doses to arrive next week.
SSM spokeswoman Stephanie Zoller said Monday that the system has requested around 10,000 doses, but it does not know exactly how many it will receive.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker also announced Monday that the state received its first shipment and said in a Monday briefing that he expects about 100,000 doses to arrive in Illinois this week.
Most of the doses will be distributed by the state, but the health departments in St. Clair and Madison counties in Metro East area are among four counties in the state set to get shipments directly from the federal government because they have facilities to store them.
Despite the hope brought by the vaccine, local officials warned Monday that social distancing measures and mask wearing are still essential to prevent spread of the virus.
Dr. Alex Garza, head of the coalition the St. Louis Metrpolitan Pandemic Task Force, a coalition of the area's major hospital systems, compared the fight against the virus Monday to a war that the area can't stop fighting yet.
"If you stop fighting while the enemy is still empowered you're going to lose a lot of people," said Garza, referencing his time as in the U.S. Army which included a deployment to Iraq as a battalion surgeon.
Garza said he expects there there likely won't be enough vaccinations for life to return closer to normal until summer, but said Monday's vaccinations were a significant step.
"Throughout this year we've been on defensive for most of the time," Garza said, adding: "Today with vaccine arriving, we can finally start going on the offensive."
The 7-day average for new COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen in the St. Louis region this month, but Garza said Monday that they're plateaued at a concerningly high number. There were 915 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 hospitalized at the region's major hospital systems reported Monday, accordimg to the task force.
Those patients were taking up about 20% of hospital beds and 80% of ICU beds, Garza said.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported 2,562 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, down from 2,694 the day before. The seven-day average of new cases fell slightly to 3,235, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis, down from a peak of 4,723 on Nov. 20, but still higher than any level seen before November.