Grayson County received and administered its first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine this week.

According to Dr. Joe Lee, medical director for the Grayson County Health Department, this week Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center (TLRMC) received 400 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine while the health department received 200.

The first vaccinations were performed on Tuesday and continued Wednesday among healthcare professionals and other frontline workers.

“The vaccine is here,” Lee said.

While pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer have each received approval to manufacture and distribute coronavirus vaccines in the United States, Lee said, Moderna’s vaccine will be more widely used in rural areas such as Grayson County because it may be stored in more standardized freezer units, as opposed to Pfizer’s, which must be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius.

Both vaccines must be administered in two separate injections, with the second injection of Moderna’s vaccine coming about 30 days after the first and the second injection of Pfizer’s coming about three weeks after the first. Officials note that the two vaccines cannot be mixed.

The first doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived at TLRMC Tuesday afternoon, and, early Tuesday evening, Dr. Hani Bleibel, a hospitalist at TLRMC became the first hospital employee to receive the vaccine.

In a news release, Bleibel said he is pleased to know that the process will begin protecting not only his patients, but his family members.

“I am getting this vaccine in order to help achieve herd immunity against COVID-19,” said Bleibel.

The vaccine will be administered in TLRMC in accordance with priorities recommended by the Kentucky Department of Public Health, the release states. The Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization for the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 18 after conducting a thorough evaluation of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

“We have been preparing for receipt and administration of the vaccine since we were notified that we would be a recipient,” said Brittany Clemons, Chief Quality Officer at TLRMC. “We have seen firsthand the devastating impact of the virus on our patients, physicians, healthcare workers and the community.”

Then, on Wednesday, the health department began administering Moderna’s vaccine to public health personnel and first responders with Grayson County EMS and the Leitchfield Fire Department. In total, about 10 frontline workers received the vaccine from the health department on Wednesday.

Officials are making an effort to vaccinate groups of 10 at a time because one vial of the vaccine contains 10 doses, and, once a vial has been opened, all 10 must be administered within six hours or whatever remains must be discarded.

After all frontline workers who wish to be vaccinated have been, the next priority, according to Lee, will be those aged 70 and over, followed by other essential workers such as teachers and food care workers.

Grayson County health officials hope to begin administering the vaccine to the general population by early spring; however, the issue is that there is currently a limited number of people who want to get the vaccine.

According to Grayson County Public Health Director Josh Embry, the primary concern being voiced by those hesitant to be vaccinated is that the vaccines were “rushed” and the companies producing them “cut corners,” making them unsafe.

But Lee, who received his first inoculation of the Moderna vaccine on Wednesday, said that, while these vaccines were rushed much faster than any other previous vaccine, the world has also not experienced a pandemic like COVID-19 before.

“They did not cut corners, however,” said Lee. “They rushed the manufacture of the vaccine, and they did the testing like they would any other vaccine.”

Lee explained that both Pfizer and Moderna conducted tests involving tens of thousands of individuals, half of whom were vaccinated and half of whom were not, and determined that Pfizer’s vaccine was 95% effective and Moderna’s was 94.5% effective, both “exceptionally high” rates of effectiveness without any significant negative reactions to them.

In comparison, Lee said, the typical flu vaccine is 50 to 60% effective.

With that in mind, officials are encouraging everyone who is able to receive the vaccine, even those who have previously been ill with COVID-19.

“The rationale for getting the vaccine, even though you’ve been sick with COVID, is that we have evidence that people who have been sick with COVID can get it again,” Lee said. “This is a significant boost in their immunity.”

Officials are also looking to quash the theory that herd immunity without a vaccine would end the pandemic.

Lee said that around 18.5 million individuals in the United States have had COVID-19, making up between 5 and 6% of the population. Of those individuals, over 323,000 have died.

In order to have herd immunity without a vaccine, Lee said, at least 70% of the nation’s population would have to contract the virus, and, at the aforementioned death rate, that would lead to the deaths of around 3 million more Americans.

Grayson County Health Department Nursing Supervisor Angee McCreery, who administered the vaccine to numerous individuals on Wednesday and received it herself, said the primary complaint after receiving the vaccine is a sore arm.

As the vaccine brings optimism to the community, TLRMC CEO Wayne Meriwether said that precautions to prevent the spread of the virus must still be taken.

“While the arrival of the vaccine is a game changer in the fight against this pandemic, we recognize that the delivery of subsequent vaccine for the general public will take time,” said Meriwether. “Even though there is light at the end of the tunnel, we must continue to wear a mask, practice proper hand hygiene, and maintain social distance.”

This recommendation was echoed by Lee, who noted that officials do not yet know if one can still carry the virus despite not being sick and potentially pass it on to others even after receiving the vaccine.

“We can’t let our guards down yet,” Lee said.

Employees and residents of assisted living facilities/nursing homes will also fall into the first group eligible to receive the vaccine, and every assisted living facility in the state of Kentucky will receive the vaccine from either Walgreens or CVS.

Bailee Stevenson, executive director of BeeHive Homes of Grayson County, said her facility is expected to begin receiving the vaccine through Walgreens either next week or after the first of the year, and vaccines will be given out in three visits over a span of two to three months to ensure everyone who wants to receive it will have the opportunity.

Stevenson said BeeHive is “highly recommending and highly suggesting” that its employees be vaccinated and is encouraging residents to consult their doctors on whether they should receive it.

“It’s just a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel for us — a little bit of hope,” Stevenson said.

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