Penn State Health St. Joseph administered its first doses of the coronavirus vaccine Friday afternoon.

Twelve health care workers who have been working in COVID-19 units were the first to be inoculated with the vaccine developed by Pfizer.

"It feels fantastic," said Mimi Beck, a registered nurse in the critical care unit, who was among the first to receive the vaccine. "It feels like I sort of won the lottery, if you will."

Beck, who has been following the news on the vaccine, responded nearly immediately when she got the call about being one of the first to receive the vaccine. 

The Bern Township hospital received its first shipment of 975 doses of the vaccine Thursday afternoon. 

"It kind of gets you choked up, actually," Beck said on how quickly the vaccine shipments arrive and the inoculation process started. "I hope everybody feels as excited as I do. We need a lot of people on board (with this)."

Dr. Brian Rueter, medical director of hospitalist services, was also among the first to be vaccinated on Friday.

"Having been on the front lines fighting and treating COVID patients over the past several months, it's an absolute privilege to be among one of the first to get the vaccine," he said. "I hope I can serve as an example to my group and the community that it's a safe vaccine and that when it becomes available to the general public, they should certainly get it."

Penn State Health's vaccine distribution plan follows the recommended guidance from the state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under the three-phase plan, health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities are the first to receive doses.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses with the second dose being administered 21 days after the first.

"It was quite an exciting moment because resources and staff have been really strained and stressed during this pandemic," said Marian Rhoads, director of pharmacy services, on overseeing the vaccination process. "The realization that perhaps there's some light at the end of this tunnel was a very rewarding moment for all of us in the pharmacy staff."

'Start of better things'

Rueter and Beck shared Rhoads' feeling of hope after what has been a very difficult year.

"In treating these patients, it's very random who gets very, very sick," Beck said. "It seems like when they start getting sick, we're throwing a lot of stuff at them and you don't see any improvement and you feel frustrated. People are struggling to breathe. It's like watching someone drown."

"You feel like you need a life preserver," she continued. "I feel like this is going to be a start of better things."

Beck added that it is exhausting being on the front lines of the pandemic and she feels for the patients and family members who are not able to be together. She tries to do everything in power to help patients connect with their families through technology.

"It's been an extremely difficult year for myself, my team and really everybody, filled with sometimes a sense of no hope or really despair," Rueter said. "The vaccine is, for the first time, a glimpse of hope into the future that we can eventually live a life free of COVID-19."

Kelsey Overfield, pharmacy clinical service coordinator, helped with administering the doses. She said planning has been going on two months and it was a great feeling for the doses to arrive Thursday and then to be able to begin administering them on Friday.

"It was amazing to administer the first vaccine," Overfield said. "It's been a long time coming. The world needs it right now."

This week, 87 Pennsylvania hospitals received doses of the vaccine across 66 counties.

Reading Hospital also received a shipment of 975 doses on Thursday. In a statement, the hospital said its health care workers will begin receiving the vaccine on Monday.

According to Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, a second shipment of the Pfizer vaccine is expected next week.

She is hopeful that the second COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Moderna, will also be approved to start being shipped next week as well.

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