AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) — It was a normal day of work for UPS driver Gabriel Sualevai on December 12 until his boss gave him a very specific order.
“They told me to shoot straight to the VA to deliver the box,” he said.
Among all the packages in Sualevai’s truck was one very special one — the first box of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine doses to arrive in Augusta.
“Pressure was high. Tension was high. I’m glad I could help the people out there in some way.”
Staff at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center had been preparing for the shipment for months. The hospital is one of 37 VA medical centers in the country selected to receive the vaccine in the preliminary stage. It is the only VA facility in Georgia to receive it.
Seconds after the shipment arrived, it was whisked away and given to hospital staff who quickly transferred doses into an ultracold freezer, which keeps Pfizer’s vaccine at -70 degrees Celsius. The VA has ordered an additional freezer to store Moderna’s vaccine at -20 degrees Celsius once it arrives. It is still awaiting approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“We were picked because of our ability to maintain that cold storage, and we would be able to utilize that vaccine in such a short amount of time,” Dr. Crystal Cha, the Augusta VA’s vaccine coordinator, said.
Staff at the Augusta VA are now beginning the difficult task of vaccinating those most at-risk of getting infected. A nurse and patient were given the vaccine just hours after the shipment arrived. Healthcare workers who treat COVID-19 patients and high-risk long-term care patients are being prioritized.
An entire clinic is being dedicated to vaccinations. The VA is compiling a list of healthcare workers who are interested in receiving the vaccine. It will call veterans to schedule appointments. Once they arrive for their appointments, veterans will be required to schedule their next visit to receive the second dose of the vaccine.
“No one is going to be excluded,” Cha says. “The VA’s ultimate goal is to provide the vaccine to anybody, healthcare provider or veteran, who wants to get it.”
It will be a complex operation to vaccinate thousands of healthcare workers and veterans at the Augusta VA. Cha says the work does not stop once a person is vaccinated.
“Even if you get vaccinated, you will still need to wear your mask and practice social distancing and proper hand hygiene because you’re not going to be immune immediately.”
The vaccine begins working two weeks after the initial dose, according to the FDA.