The first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are being shipped across the country

Wisconsin hospitals are preparing to start distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to their frontline health care workers as the first doses were shipped across the country Sunday.

The Pfizer manufacturing plant in Portage, Michigan, sent out three semi-trucks loaded with the nation’s first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine early Sunday morning. 

Susan Deur of Plainwell, center, and Nancy Galloway of Plainwell, left, applaud and cheer as they watch the trucks carrying Covid-19 vaccine leave at Pfizer Global Supply in Portage, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020.

Millions of doses of the company’s coronavirus vaccine developed with German partner BioNTech were inside those trucks, and could be injected into the arms of the American people as early as Monday morning. 

The first distribution of vaccines is a long-awaited moment to start to quell the pandemic. Since the coronavirus arrived in the United States, about 300,000 people have died from COVID-19. In Wisconsin, 4,056 people have died from the coronavirus with 15 recorded Sunday. Another 2,757 confirmed cases were reported Sunday by the Department of Health Services.

Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services said it anticipates that the vaccine will be in the state by mid-week. 

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which is about 95% effective, is the first to clear all federal regulatory hurdles. Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signed off on the use of the vaccine in people 16 and older. With his stamp of approval, vaccinations can begin. 

Pfizer has said it will deliver 6.4 million doses around the country in this initial shipment.

The Michigan plant was handling all the distribution this weekend, Pfizer said Sunday, but a Wisconsin facility in Pleasant Prairie is ready to be a key point for the distribution of the vaccine.

The company said the Pleasant Prairie site will be used for distribution as needed. 

Containers are moved with a fork truck at the Pfizer Wisconsin facility Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Pleasant Prairie. The nation’s first COVID-19 vaccine will begin arriving in states Monday morning, U.S. officials said Saturday, after the government gave the final go-ahead to the shots needed to end an outbreak that has killed nearly 300,000 Americans. - Photo by Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

To handle the vaccine that must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, the Pleasant Prairie facility has been modified, new equipment has been installed and additional staffers are being hired. The vaccine made by Pfizer needs to be stored at an extremely cold temperature — minus 70 degrees Celsius

The state expects to receive about 50,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week. A batch of 101,000 Moderna doses is expected to arrive next week. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, administered a few weeks apart. 

The first people in Wisconsin to receive the vaccine will be frontline health care workers. Nursing home workers and residents are also a high priority to receive the vaccine but likely will not get it until late December or January. 

Advocate Aurora Health emailed all team members Saturday that the hospital system is prepared to begin vaccinating team members early this week. Physicians and other caregivers working in high-risk settings will be among the first to receive the vaccine, the email said. 

Team members who are eligible for the first supply of vaccine delivered to Aurora will receive an email to schedule inoculation early this week, the email said. 

The Pfizer vaccine will be kept at storage facilities across the state as it is distributed. University of Wisconsin Health will serve as a storage facility for south-central Wisconsin’s supply of the Pfizer vaccine. Marshfield Clinic Health System said it will be an initial distribution site for the rest of north-central Wisconsin. 

Following the initial delivery of the first 6.4 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, the company is expected to send out weekly shipments of its vaccine, totaling 33.6 million additional doses before the end of the year, said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar during a Dec. 2 news briefing.

Because Pfizer’s vaccine requires two doses, spaced 21 days apart, Azar said that Pfizer is on track to deliver enough coronavirus vaccine for about 20 million Americans in December alone. 

“Vaccines will only bring this pandemic to an end if enough Americans choose to take these vaccines,” Azar said. “Having substantial quantities of a safe and effective vaccine that’s been authorized by FDA before the end of the year is a remarkable achievement and it will start saving lives very soon.”

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Kristen Jordan Shamus of the Detroit Free Press and Mary Spicuzza, Daphne Chen and Joe Taschler of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.  

Sarah Hauer can be reached at shauer@journalsentinel.com or on Instagram @HauerSarah and Twitter @SarahHauer. Subscribe to her weekly newsletter Be MKE at jsonline.com/bemke