It arrived unceremoniously, this cardboard box filled with new hope. 

FedEx dropped off 3,900 doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine — some of the first delivered in the state — “a little earlier than anticipated” at 7:20 a.m., said Steve Fijalka, UW Medicine’s chief pharmacy officer. 

They’ve been preparing for this moment for months, but it didn’t feel real until the box was in his hands. 

“Special,” he said. “Now, comes the fun part: getting it into the arms of staff.” 

The vaccine delivery, among the first in Washington state, is the local launch of a historic national effort to vaccinate as many of the country’s 330 million people as are willing to bare their arms. It could represent the turning point against the virus that has killed nearly 3,000 Washingtonians, hobbled the state’s economy and disrupted nearly every aspect of society.

UW Medicine plans to “soft-launch” vaccination clinics Tuesday, Fijalka said. Staffers at highest risk were encouraged last weekend to sign up for vaccination beginning this Thursday, when clinics officially open. 

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UW Medicine expects to have administered all of the first 3,900 vaccine doses by early next week and for its high-risk employees to be vaccinated by the end of December. Fijalka said he expects another shipment of vaccines next week.

But first, deep in the bowels of UW Medicine’s Montlake campus, Fijalka and colleagues had to perform what will soon become ritual — a choreographed unboxing.

The box arrived with four trays, each the size of a pizza box. Each tray had 195 vials, containing five doses each. UW Medicine received one tray for each of its campuses.

Fijalka slipped on cryo-gloves to protect against the subzero temperatures that keep vials of vaccine cold for shipping, slid a box cutter through tape and pulled out a package of dry ice as fog wafted from the box.

His colleague, Christine Meyer, a purchasing operations manager at UW Medicine, grabbed a tray and stuffed it into an ultracold freezer, equipped with temperature sensors to ensure vials of vaccine do not exceed minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Pharmacy administration resident Derek Pohlmeyer shoveled an infusion of dry ice into the box to keep the other trays cold for transportation. Fijalka sealed the box back up, and they wheeled it down the hallway along with some vaccination kits, turning the heads of a few people wearing scrubs.

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“Good morning,” Fijalka said, cheerily, to one group of passersby. “Happy vaccine day.” 

Then, he loaded the material into a black SUV, and started off to UW Medical Center Northwest, Harborview Medical Center and Valley Medical Center in Renton to deliver his holiday gifts. 

The Food and Drug Administration gave the vaccine emergency approval on Friday, triggering shipments to hospitals across the country just days before the death toll from COVID-19 topped 300,000 people in the U.S.

Washington’s first 62,400 doses have been directed to 40 facilities in 29 counties, including hospitals, one pharmacy, two tribal nations and an urban Indian health facility, according to Michele Roberts, the state Department of Health’s acting assistant secretary. Most doses will go to health care workers.

Between Pfizer’s vaccine, and the Moderna vaccine that awaits emergency approval, state officials expect more than 400,000 doses from the federal government by the end of 2020; they will go to hospitals for health care workers and to residents in long-term care facilities.

State officials last week further refined which workers in health care should get the first doses, asking hospitals to use “clinical judgment” to direct the vaccine to those at the highest risk, including people who treat patients face to face, testing-site staffers and first responders with the most risk of exposure.

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The vaccine rollout to hospital staffers and long-term care residents will test the state health department’s logistics planning, hospitals’ preparations and their employees’ eagerness to receive the vaccine.

Hospital leaders said they have strongly encouraged employees to get the vaccine. 

“Vulnerable people are coming in. This is a way to protect not just ourselves, but our community,” said Dr. Shireesha Dhanireddy, an infectious-disease clinician at Harborview Medical Center helping lead UW Medicine vaccination efforts, last Wednesday. “We can set the example.” 

Vaccines could be available more broadly in the spring and summer, and state officials are working out who should receive priority, based on clinical trial data and guidance from independent advisers to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After health care workers and long-term care residents, the next waves of vaccination are likely include some essential workers, seniors and people with significant health issues that place them at risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.

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