The first UCI Health frontline healthcare workers receive the vaccine Wednesday, Dec. 16. They will receive a second shot in three weeks. Carlos Puma for UCI Health

The first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine arrived at the UCI Medical Center Wednesday, Dec. 16, in specially designed deep cold storage packages, ensconced in dry ice with the temperature held below about -70 degrees C (about -94 degrees F).

It was a moment that workers at UCI Health had spent round-the-clock days prepping for. Earlier in the week, they had conducted drills to practice ferrying the vaccine into deep freeze storage and reconstituting the vaccine from vials into injectable doses.

Within hours on Wednesday, the first doses were being injected into the arms of a handful of healthcare workers.

Dr. Cyrus Dastur (foreground) helps with the arrival of the vaccines Wednesday morning, Dec. 16. UCI Health received nearly 3,000 units of the Pfizer vaccine. UCI Health

Hope at last.

Wednesday’s injections were followed by a more expansive rollout for front-line clinical workers on Thursday. The first 3,000 doses were enough to cover everyone in the first group of five groups, and to start with the second group. By Sunday, UCI Health expects to vaccinate 2,000 people.

Vaccinations started with frontline clinical staff who care for patients in high-risk settings, or patients who might have COVID-19. They were joined by staff and physicians in the emergency department, ICU staff and physicians, clinicians providing critical care, respiratory therapists, anesthesiologists and others were first on the list.

“It’s been tested, and I trust the process,” says Dr. Cyrus Dastur, the director of neurocritical care at UCI Health and among the first to receive the vaccine Wednesday. “I feel very comfortable getting one of the first shots available.”

“Hopefully we can begin to get past the pandemic next year and get back to a normal life,” adds Dastur, whose team treats incoming stroke patients – some of whom are COVID-positive – and provide neurological care for COVID patients. He also helped with the rollout of the vaccine by participating on UCI Health and UCOP planning teams. “I look forward to taking my children to see my parents without them having a risk of exposure. And I look forward to seeing the daily loss-of-life numbers go down, but it’s going to take some time for this to happen.”

All told, roughly 15,000 employees in the UCI Health system will be offered the vaccine — any one of them who wants it is able to get it.

“More than 500 people signed up in the first hour after the vaccination schedule opened up on Monday afternoon, so our staff are clearly very excited to have this vaccine available,” UCI Health CEO Chad Lefteris says. “Our teams have been working literally around the clock to prepare, receive, handle and distribute the vaccine to about 15,000 workers.”

UCI Health will also be administering the Moderna vaccine; the first shipment of 5,000 units is expected to arrive next week.

UCI Health has been able to rely on its experience providing influenza vaccinations to thousands of staff every year, even as the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine poses unique logistical challenges. The vaccine has to be kept at deep freeze storage and must be prepared according to specific requirements. Consent forms must be collected from all patients. Staff schedules must be coordinated to ensure there are no disruptions to patient care. Some vaccine recipients experience mild symptoms, so vaccinations must be staggered to ensure necessary staffing levels.

Planning for the novel coronavirus began in early February, before it was widespread, and continued through the spring and summer when cases crested, receded and crested again. Along the way, UCI Health prepared for the eventual vaccine by, for instance, ordering more than 30,000 needles this summer.

At least one UCI employee, Lars Walton, chief of staff to UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman, potentially had an early experience of the vaccine, since he was part of the clinical trial for the Pfizer vaccine — though he doesn’t know if he received the vaccine or a placebo.

Walton answered an ad to sign up for the trial, which was administered by Anaheim Clinical Trials. He received the first dose in early September and a second dose three weeks later. He hasn’t had any unusual symptoms.

“A lot of people are nervous about it, and they’re reading 100-word tweets on it from people who don’t have a science background,” Walton says. “But there’s a lot of amazing science behind this, and you can check out all the information on the FDA’s authorization. If you’re nervous, I would really recommend reading the FDA authorization rather than reading articles or social media posts written by people who aren’t medical professionals.”

The trial will last two years, and in that time, Walton will keep a weekly health diary and get blood drawn for analysis every three months. Trial participants who want can also leave the study to receive the vaccine.

“I think it’s amazing that your body can fix itself like this. When you break a bone, your body can heal. And with this mRNA vaccine, the vaccine is actually giving your body instructions on how to fight off the virus,” Walton says. “This virus has prompted science to make a huge leap forward that we otherwise wouldn’t have been forced to make. That’s the silver lining of all this tragedy.”