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Health Networks of Lehigh Valley Administer First COVID-19 Vaccinations

By Colin McEvoy on December 29, 2020

Nurse Sonia Iparraguirre was the first individual to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at St. Luke’s University Health Network this month. (photo courtesy St. Luke’s)

The health networks of the Lehigh Valley have been administering its first COVID-19 vaccinations to its front-line workers this month, and are developing plans for providing vaccines to the Lehigh Valley community when they become available to the wider general public.

Lehigh Valley Health Network and the St. Luke’s University Health Network were among the initial group of hospitals in Pennsylvania to receive the recently approved COVID-19 vaccine in the first phase of a nationwide effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is a pivotal moment in our fight against COVID,” Jeffrey Jahre, MD, infectious disease expert and St. Luke’s Senior Vice President of Medical and Academic Affairs said when the vaccinations were first received. “The world has been waiting for this vaccine, and we are on the cusp of being able to provide it.”

Jennifer Rovella, DO, LVPG Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, one of the first at LVHN to receive the vaccine, said: “Except for a sore arm at the injection site, much like how I felt when I got the flu shot, it is business as usual today. I feel great knowing that this is the beginning to the end of the pandemic.”

Jennifer Rovella, DO, LVPG Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, was one of the first at the Lehigh Valley Health Network to receive the vaccine. (photo courtesy LVHN)

Quantity of the vaccine will be limited and prioritized based on a structured plan provided by federal and state agencies, according to the health networks. The general public’s ability to receive the vaccine is still several weeks, maybe months, away.

The first phase will deliver limited supplies of the vaccine to health care institutions around the country and will be administered only to front-line health care workers, EMS first responders, and residents in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

“While there are different opinions on whom should be vaccinated first, the CDC and the Department of Health have decided that health care workers, and EMS first responders receive initial priority due to their high risk of exposure to COVID-19, and the need to maintain a healthy workforce to continue to provide care,” said Peter Ender, St. Luke’s Chief of Infectious Disease.

LVHN received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17 and immediately began vaccinating its front-line workers. The shipment contained enough vaccinations for 975 people to receive their first dose of the vaccine.

By Dec. 22, LVHN had administered more than 1,000 vaccinations to front-line colleagues and plans to vaccinate about 6,000 more in the coming days. Only three reported minor side effects, and the symptoms for each person subsided quickly.

St. Luke’s nurse Sonia Iparraguirre, a Bethlehem resident, was the first individual to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at St. Luke’s University Health Network on Dec. 17. Earlier in the year, she had admitted the first COVID-19 patient at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Bethlehem.

“I am so happy to be part of this momentous step to end the pandemic,” Iparraguirre said. “I want people in our community to know that the vaccine is safe, and that if they want it, they should get it. It protects their health and the health of our community.”

LVHN had been a clinical trial site for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, in which about 75 LVHN employees, patients, and community members had participated to help determine whether the vaccines were effective and safe. But this month’s shipment marked the first received under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization.

Last month, St. Luke’s University Health Network opened one of Pennsylvania’s first outpatient COVID-19 treatment programs: a monoclonal antibody infusion center at St. Luke’s Easton Campus. It had also opened an outpatient COVID-19 treatment clinic at St. Luke’s Warren Campus in Phillipsburg, N.J.

The local hospital networks followed guidelines from the National Academy of Medicine, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Health to draft the priorities for who gets the vaccines first.

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