Even as Boston medical workers began receiving their long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker warned that a spike in coronavirus infections since Thanksgiving is straining the state’s health care system and implored residents to forgo holiday gatherings.
“It’s not a secret that we’re in a second surge here in Massachusetts,” Baker said. “And while hope is clearly right around the corner, arriving in dry ice in the form of a vaccine, it’s not here yet.”
To reverse the alarming trend, Baker said, residents should celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s in-person only with people who live in their households.
Baker’s glum holiday recommendation came amid a rare moment of optimism as hospital workers who have been on the front lines of battling COVID-19 since the spring began turning some of their attention to immunizing themselves.
With a gentle jab in her arm, and a thumbs-up, a Tufts Medical Center scientist received an injection of the new vaccine Tuesday, in what is believed to be the first vaccination of a health care staffer at a Boston hospital.
Dr. Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, an associate hospital epidemiologist, was one of 10 caregivers given shots at a hastily scheduled gathering at Tufts’ campus in Chinatown, hours after the hospital received its first vaccine shipment.
“And it’s in!” Andujar Vazquez exclaimed with a quick fist pump while a crowd of onlookers applauded.
Sixteen other Massachusetts hospitals — all with ultracold storage capacity — were scheduled to receive their initial lots of the coveted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Tuesday. A total of 53,625 vaccine doses were set to arrive, after four hospitals received 5,850 doses Monday, the start of an ambitious push to inoculate 5.8 million state residents over the age of 16.
Baker promised shipments will be ramped up in the coming weeks, but he spelled out the state’s immediate predicament at a press briefing.
“Unfortunately, a few days after Thanksgiving, we started seeing significant increases in new COVID cases and hospitalizations,” the governor said.
Ten days before Thanksgiving, he said, the state was averaging about 2,500 new cases per day. Thirteen days after the holiday, that number nearly doubled to nearly 4,800 per day.
“That’s a 96 percent increase in a little over a week,” Baker said, adding that COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past three weeks have jumped by 93 percent. “Patients in the ICU have increased by 73 percent and . . . we’ve also seen deaths increase by 84 percent since Thanksgiving.”
At Tufts, where 2,925 doses arrived just after 7 a.m., the new vaccine could not come soon enough.
By early afternoon, pharmacist Nick Capote carefully drew the first five doses from a small glass vial of thawed and diluted vaccine, filling each syringe with 0.3 mililiters of clear liquid.
Andujar Vazquez said it was an easy decision to sign up to be vaccinated and “an amazing privilege” to be the first at Tufts. Then she peeled off her white lab coat while nurse Gina-Marie Giarusso prepped her left arm for the injection.
“I’m hoping that it’s the beginning of the end,” Andujar Vazquez said, vowing to still follow public health guidelines until the rest of the population is immunized. “But we’re almost there!”
Medical assistant Gadira Rodriquez admitted she was nervous while waiting for her turn. Rodriquez, who goes by Mercedes, had a mild case of COVID-19 back in March. These past nine months have been “nerve-wracking,” she said, “knowing that we’re losing people daily to this virus.”
But she didn’t wince at all as the needle punctured her skin. “It felt like a normal shot,” the 34-year-old said afterward.
Thelma Samuels, a 75-year-old medical assistant, also was among the first to receive the vaccine. “At my age, I need to get it,” she said with a chuckle. Her sister in England died of COVID-19 the day before Thanksgiving.
At work, she said, she’s exposed to coronavirus patients “every 15 minutes.” “Since [the pandemic] started, I never stopped working,” Samuels said. “I just need to go on vacation.”
The state has been told to expect 300,000 individual doses of the two-dose vaccines by year-end. That includes 180,000 from Pfizer and BioNTech and 120,000 from Cambridge-based Moderna. Moderna’s vaccine is still awaiting US regulatory approval, but is expected to get a Food and Drug Administration nod for emergency use by week’s end.
State officials said Tuesday that they expect vaccinations to begin at nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities the week of Dec. 28, a week later than the facilities had been expecting them. Those injections will be administered by pharmacy companies CVS and Walgreens under federal contract.
Caregivers at Tufts, as well as colleagues at two sister community hospitals, MelroseWakefield Hospital and Lowell General Hospital, were selected to be vaccinated Tuesday as hospitals start providing the first of the two shots required for the vaccine. The second shot must be taken within 21 days for the Pfizer vaccine and 28 days for the Moderna vaccine.
Four other hospitals got their first shipments Monday. Boston Medical Center got 1,950 doses, leading staffers to literally dance outside the South End hospital.
North of Boston, MelroseWakefield Healthcare — composed of MelroseWakefield Hospital in Melrose and Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford — got its first delivery Tuesday morning, said spokesman Rob Brogna.
“The hope in people’s eyes and the excitement was palpable,’' Brogna said of the delivery at the Melrose facility Tuesday morning. “It was very exciting here.”
He said the Melrose hospital currently has about 30 COVID-19 patients, a dramatic increase from the summer, when there were sometimes none. “Things have certainly ticked up,’' he said.
State officials plan to provide the initial vaccine doses to front-line health workers and long-term-care residents. They will be followed by home-based health care workers, public safety employees, other health workers, and people working or living at other congregate care settings such as prisons and homeless shelters.
“Phase one of the vaccine plan is very much underway,” Baker said Tuesday.
Massachusetts officials are hoping Phase one can be completed by February, so they can move on to vaccinating Phase Two residents: People with two or more chronic health conditions, critical workers such as teachers, transit employees, and food and sanitation workers, adults 65 and over, and residents with a single serious illness.
Other residents wouldn’t be eligible for the vaccine until Phase Three, which is scheduled to start in April.
Among the hospitals receiving vaccines on the second day of distribution were Boston Children’s Hospital, Metrowest Medical Center in Framingham, Massachusetts General Hospital, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, and Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River.
In Worcester, the UMass Memorial Health Care system got 1,950 doses Tuesday that will be used to help protect front-line caregivers in the emergency room, the field hospital at the DCU Center, and a COVID ward operated by the health care system, a spokesman said.
The first @Pfizer vaccine doses for @UMassMemorial health care workers have arrived in #Worcester. Caregivers will be vaccinated starting this week. UMass Medical School researchers took part in the clinical trial. #COVID19 #coronavirus pic.twitter.com/DLu6mkCDs8— UMass Medical School (@UMassMedical) December 15, 2020
Andrew Miller, a housekeeper at the VA Bedford Healthcare System, may have been the first person in Massachusetts to get the vaccination. The Bedford hospital posted a tweet saying that he was the first employee there to receive the shot, on Monday at 12:20 p.m.
A few minutes later, the hospital tweeted that Margaret Klessens, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, became the first Veterans Administration patient in the country to receive the vaccine.
Baker said the arrival of vaccines heralded the “last lap” in the state’s marathon battle against a virus that has sickened more than 280,000 residents over the past nine months and contributed to the deaths of over 11,000.
With the vaccine, Baker said, “the path back to something that looks like normal is right around the corner.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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