By Conor McCue

DENVER (CBS4) — The first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Colorado on Monday morning. Gov. Jared Polis was there to accept the delivery. Polis called it a “triumph of modern science” and said it represents the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

(credit: Governor of Colorado’s Office)

“I have signed my name so many times over the years, but never with such immense joy as this morning when I signed the delivery confirmation for the arrival of the first highly effective Coronavirus vaccine,” Polis tweeted later.

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“This is also a triumph of modern science. When you think about how long it took to get prior vaccines like polio and others to market years, even decades, some of them. This one was done in record time, highly effective vaccine and not just [one] vaccine, vaccines — this one today is the Pfizer one, we’re expecting the Moderna one, hopefully within a week or two,” Polis said.

Now, the biggest mass vaccination effort in state history will begin. The first Coloradans will receive the vaccine Monday afternoon.

Colorado will get 46,800 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has identified 46 sites that will be the first to receive them. Dozens more are set to get portions of the first 95,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine once it is approved.

“This is the beginning of the end,” Polis said. “Over 40,000 doses arriving this week, over 80,000 in the next few weeks, [this is] the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

(credit: CBS)

Only a small fraction of Coloradans will receive inoculations from this first shipment. The first phase in Colorado’s recently released guidance includes health care workers who interact with COVID patients, first responders, and people at long term care facilities.

(credit: CBS)

“Starting today, some health [care workers], people working COVID wards and then right away some of our older Coloradans who live in nursing homes. Some of the most vulnerable will be protected,” Polis said.

Facilities in Denver, Aspen, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins were some of the chosen locations for the first Pfizer vaccines. For the initial shipments, 46 facilities will receive Pfizer vaccines, 151 facilities will get Moderna doses and 40 of them will get both.

One of the facilities expecting a shipment of 300 doses early in the week is Rose Medical Center, a HealthONE affiliate. A spokesperson for the hospital system tells CBS4 all HealthONE hospitals will receive an allotment from first distribution and begin vaccinating.

“I can’t really relay my excitement enough about this,” said Dr. John Hammer, a specialist on infectious diseases and the chair of medicine at Rose Medical Center.

According to Dr. Hammer, the facility expects to receive the shipment of vaccines on Tuesday or Wednesday. Once thawed, they’ll have five days to administer the vaccines to qualified staff who choose to be inoculated.

“We’ll be able to get the majority of those, if not all of those people, that want the vaccine vaccinated this week, and that’s my primary concern,” Hammer said.

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Polis urged Colorado hospitals to administer the COVID-19 vaccination within 72 hours of receiving the vaccine.

“…we need to be ready to hit the ground running. Our ability to quickly vaccinate prioritized populations and report those doses as administered to the Colorado Immunization Information System is paramount to Colorado’s ability to receive future allocations of COVID vaccine and end this public health crisis. With vaccine distribution plans coming together, I ask that you please affirm that your facility/organization is able to administer the COVID vaccinations within 72 hours of receiving the vaccine,” Polis wrote in a letter to Colorado hospitals.

While the state distribution guidelines are clear, challenges still lie ahead. Some include keeping the vaccine cold enough, distributing it to rural and mountain communities, combatting vaccine hesitancy among the general population and health care workers, and more.

“We need to be sure that our timing is spot on, that when it’s landed, we know who that vaccine is potentially assigned to,” said Dr. Darlene Tad-y, Vice President of Clinical Affairs for the Colorado Hospital Association, which has played a part in the state’s planning.

Tad-y said the goal is not to waste a single dose, and that’s why leaders have spent weeks on every aspect of the state’s mass vaccination effort.

“There’s been a lot of brilliant minds throughout this whole process, and this last mile isn’t going to break us,” Tad-y said.

At Rose, Dr. Hammer said ultra-cold freezers are ready and he is confident in the ability to store the vaccine.

Another thing the hospital leadership is working on is how to space out staff vaccinations in case some have side effects. One option is for staff to schedule receiving the vaccine before planned off days.

“We don’t want to take out a whole unit or a significant portion of a unit with side effects at the same time obviously,” Hammer said.

Both doctors stressed how important it is for people to continue wearing masks and social distancing, even though vaccines will soon be in distribution. In Colorado, the general public likely won’t have the opportunity to get vaccinated until the summer, and until then the virus will continue to spread in communities and test health care facilities.

Nine months into the pandemic, the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight. Hammer says the vaccine is an important tool to get us there.

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(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)  

Conor McCue