Health Care Workers First to Receive COVID-19 Vaccine

Correctional facility staff and inmates are expected to be vaccinated in early 2021.

A Jefferson Regional Medical Center employee receives one the center's first COVID-19 vaccines
Latasha McGown, an RN for Jefferson Regional Medical Center, receives the organization's first COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 15, 2020. Courtesy: Jefferson Regional Medical Center

More hospitals around the state received and administered the new Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine yesterday including Mercy Fort Smith, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff.

Jefferson Regional serves about 280,000 residents in 11 counties in southeast Arkansas and the first of its 975 doses was given to an employee working in the hospital’s designated COVID unit.

Hannah Howell, a 17 year-old high school senior who works as an assistant at Jefferson Regional Rehab, was the youngest vaccine recipient at Jefferson Regional. She is attending class in person and wanted to be vaccinated in order to protect the patients she sees in the afternoons, according to a Facebook post by Jefferson Regional.

While the Pfizer vaccine is the first to make its way to Arkansas, it’s likely not the last. During yesterday’s weekly briefing on the pandemic, Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. José Romero announced a second vaccine created by Moderna is likely to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration soon. Arkansas could have two vaccines being shipped to the state as early as next week, he said. 

Both offer protection against COVID-19, but the age range for which the vaccines are recommended vary slightly. The Moderna vaccine will be administered to people 18 and older while the Pfizer vaccine is recommended for those 16 and up.

“I want to stress that safety has never been compromised for these vaccines,” Romero said. “In all three phases of the vaccine development, safety has been paramount and that has been echoed by the pharmaceutical companies, the FDA and the CDC.”

After the release of the vaccines, Romero said there are at least four ways of tracking safety. One of those allows the public to self-report any adverse reactions. 

“The vaccines are reactogenic, that is they cause some fever, some swelling of the arm and some soreness, but that does not mean that the vaccines are not safe,” he said.

Vaccines will continue to be shipped to Arkansas on a recurring basis. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he anticipates an update each Friday about how many vaccines the state can expect to receive the following week.

The new COVID-19 vaccines are being administered to health care workers first, followed by staff and residents of long-term care facilities. Other congregate settings like prisons are expected to receive the vaccine in early 2021.

Sec. of Corrections Solomon Graves speaks at a press conference
Solomon Graves, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, announces his department will receive an additional 43,000 antigen tests next week during a press briefing Dec. 15, 2020.

“We will start by vaccinating our medical staff then move to our state correctional facility employees,” said Solomon Graves, Secretary of the Department of Corrections. “Those vaccinations should begin the latter part of January through February and then the latter part of February into March, based on the current vaccine schedule, we will have vaccine made available to the inmates and residents in our state prisons and community correction centers.”  

The Department of Corrections received an allotment of rapid antigen tests in October and since then, more than 44,000 tests have been administered, Sec. Graves said.

“These are part of a weekly strategy within all of our state prisons and community correction centers for all staff receiving a rapid test upon their arrival at work,” he said. 

Since October, 141 staff members have tested positive through the antigen testing initiative. 

“While to some that may appear to be a small amount, within a congregate housing setting, being able to get in front of the asymptomatic spread of the COVID virus is an extremely important tool and we are grateful that the state has given us this ability,” Graves said.  “As a result, we have seen a flattening of our COVID tests over the last two months.”

Graves announced yesterday the Department of Corrections will receive a second allocation of 43,000 antigen tests from the Department of Health early next week. These are projected to last through the end of February and into early March when inmates are expected to begin receiving the vaccine.

There are 454 inmates and 153 DOC staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, but have not yet recovered, according to numbers released by the Arkansas Department of Corrections yesterday. DOC has conducted a total of 52,501 tests.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.