Emory Healthcare vaccinated its first employee against COVID-19 on Thursday afternoon after receiving its first shipment of the vaccine that morning. This marks the beginning of Phase 1 vaccinations for the University, which will include health care workers and long-term care residents.

Nicole Baker, a nurse manager at Emory Univeristy Hospital, is the first employee to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17. (Courtesy of Emory Photo).

The first employee vaccinated was Nicole Baker, a nurse manager at Emory University Hospital. Frontline health care workers will be targeted first in order to ensure there is enough staff to care for patients, according to Emory Chief of Infectious Disease Services Aneesh Mehta. It is unclear which frontline workers will be prioritized during the first weeks of vaccinations. 

“If we can get healthcare workers across the country vaccinated, it means that, as we are seeing surges of COVID-19 cases, we will have enough staff to safely take care of those patients and get them back to their families,” Mehta said in a town hall with other Emory Healthcare experts on Thursday.

For Ingrid Pinzon Quiroga, physician and assistant professor at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, receiving the vaccine was a “relief.”

“To the people that are not in the medical field, they don’t know how we feel, how afraid we are … The fact that I got the vaccine, it takes away that feeling,” she said.

Pinzon hopes that vaccinating healthcare workers will help convince those apprehensive about getting the vaccine that it is safe.

While the vaccine currently being administered was created by Pfizer, the FDA approved a vaccine from Moderna for emergency use authorization on Friday evening. Emory facilities were the site of much of the testing for Moderna’s vaccine.

Interim director of the Hope Clinic and co-author on the Phase 1 studies for Moderna, Nadine Rouphael, told the Wheel that the unusual circumstances posed new difficulties for running vaccine trials.

“There have been many logistical challenges to it. We started doing the clinical trials when the city was locked down… but everybody had been remarkable. The staff went right in to do anything they could do to make this happen, we had support from the community,” she said.

Reading the studies and the FDA’s review of the Pfizer vaccine helped Kyle James, a physician and assistant professor at Emory University Hospital Midtown, trust its safety and effectiveness.

“I would encourage every individual to take the time to look at the data, look at the numbers, ask their own questions and find those answers. Because it’s out there, and the FDA, the CDC, the investigators themselves put that data out there to look at,” he said in an interview. James was vaccinated on Thursday.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use a similar approach to generate immunity: messenger RNA, used by the recipient’s body to generate coronavirus spike proteins, which in turn leads to the production of antibodies.

The vaccine will not change plans for controlling the spread of COVID-19 on campus in the spring, said Sharon Rabinovitz, executive director of Emory Student Health Services, during the town hall.

“We will continue with the current mitigation strategies and on-campus density plans for the foreseeable future,” Rabinovitz said.

The vaccine will be provided for free to students, faculty and staff when it becomes more widely available, Emory Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Jonathan Lewin said, but it remains unclear when that will be.

A detailed plan for prioritizing the dissemination of the vaccine to the populations who need it most on campus has not yet been developed, but will be determined by a “multidisciplinary group,” he said.

Emory Healthcare has only a limited supply of vaccine doses, with forthcoming quantities uncertain. Georgia is among over 14 states that will be receiving 40% fewer vaccine doses next week than expected, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. General Gustave Perna, leader of Operation Warp Speed, took the blame for the confusion, saying it was due to a “planning error.”

Even with the full allotment of vaccines this week, Vice President of Pharmacy Services at Emory Healthcare Christy Norman noted in a media briefing on Dec. 14 that “there is not enough vaccine at this point to potentially vaccinate the entire [Emory] Healthcare community.” 

While Emory Healthcare placed orders for “enough vaccines to take care of our entire community,” Norman said this quantity will be filled in a series of small shipments. 

As the vaccine becomes available to wider populations, experts still urge everyone to use masks and maintain social distancing.

“We are going to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing and good hand-washing for the foreseeable future,” Epidemiologist at the Emory Clinic Marybeth Sexton said during the town hall.