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Jeremy Hulsker (right), an RN at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, receives the first vaccine from Tamera Dunseth-Rosenbaum, Chief Nursing Officer for UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado. About 20 health care workers from UCHealth were vaccinated at the Memorial Administration Building. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Colorado received its first shipment of the coronavirus vaccine and inoculated its first recipients Monday, launching a months-long vaccination process that health officials hope will start to have meaningful effects on limiting transmission of the disease in the state by late spring.

Just after 8 a.m., a FedEx van delivered 975 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab in east Denver. Gov. Jared Polis was on hand for the delivery, personally signing for the suitcase-sized package.

“It’s the Pfizer vaccine arriving here in Colorado to end the pandemic!” Polis called out as Preston Riley, a FedEx delivery man wearing a purple and orange uniform, rang the freight-entrance doorbell and wheeled up the cardboard box.

Even Riley shared in the celebration.

“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” he said through a mask with the words “FedEx strong” printed on it. “Get our country back moving again.”

Polis, who was appearing at his first in-person event since testing positive for the coronavirus on Nov. 28, said it was an “exciting day.” He also called the delivery a “powerful and emotional moment.”

He helped Patrick Belou, a logistics coordinator in the state’s lab, wheel the package down a long hallway. The two then unboxed the white tray of vials, a process that included Polis pushing a button within the container to confirm receipt for Pfizer. The pair worked together to place the vials in an ultra-cold freezer for storage.

Virus Outbreak Vaccine Denver

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis opens the state's first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine in the laboratory of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Dec. 14.

“This vaccine, once it’s widely distributed, will end this pandemic,” Polis said, adding he trusts the vaccine is safe because the trials included so many people. He said Coloradans should expect side effects similar to a flu shot.

The doses delivered to the state lab are to be distributed to Rose Medical Center and Saint Joseph Hospital, both in Denver.

Two other vaccine shipments were delivered to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Boulder Community Health on Monday morning. Shortly after 2 p.m. Monday, Kevin Londrigan, a respiratory therapist at the Poudre Valley hospital who has pre-existing medical conditions, became the first Coloradan to be inoculated against the virus.

"This has been a long, exhausting time coming," he said. "The vaccine isn't the end of it, but it is the light at the end of the tunnel."

Before Londrigan received his inoculation, Polis — who traveled to the Fort Collins hospital after greeting the vaccine's arrival — joked about being excited to see a needle.

Health care workers will be the first recipients of Colorado’s first batch of vaccines, totaling 46,800 doses. The additional doses are expected to arrive this week, with more deliveries Tuesday and Wednesday. UCHealth's Poudre Valley Hospital was expected to vaccinate 20 of its health care workers Monday; the system's hospital in Colorado Springs was set to inoculate a similar number.

“I think we’ll have a lot more confidence going in taking care of these COVID-19 patients,” said Daphne Dubach, a registered nurse at the Fort Collins hospital who was the third Coloradan to be vaccinated against the virus. “And just feeling more comfortable going home at night to our loved ones.”

The vaccine must be administered in two doses over a three-week period to be most effective, meaning the first shipment will only be enough to inoculate 23,400 people. Polis asked hospitals to administer the doses within 72 hours of receiving them. He told another worker waiting in line that she was just "30 days from immunity here."

Health-care workers were the focus of vaccine fanfare Monday, but nursing home residents and staff will also get priority for the first doses of the vaccine. They likely won’t start being inoculated until after Christmas, according to Brig. Gen. Scott Sherman of the Colorado National Guard, who is leading Colorado’s vaccine distribution task force.

“That program is a contract with both Walgreens and CVS in Colorado,” Sherman said. He, with Polis and others, greeted the vaccine's arrival in Denver. “They will receive the vaccine (and) actually schedule with the long-term care facilities to go into those facilities and start administering vaccine.”

It could be the summer before the general public gets access to the vaccine.

A shipment of about 96,000 doses of the yet-to-be-approved Moderna vaccine is expected next week, state health officials said. The Moderna vaccine also must be administered in two doses within three weeks to be most effective.

Scott Bookman, the state health department’s COVID-19 incident commander, was also on hand for the delivery. He said distributing the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at roughly minus 75 degrees Celsius (minus 103 Farebheit), is a “huge logistical operation.”

He said there are ultra-cold freezers at the state lab and facilities across the state that will be used to keep the vaccine at those extreme temperatures. The Moderna vaccine is easier to transport and store, as it can be kept at temperatures closer to that of a normal medical freezer, about 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Bookman said it will be much easier to manage.

“Everybody is moving as fast as they can,” Bookman said. “Understand that this was authorized on Friday. We’re still getting more guidance as we speak.”

Bookman described the delivery as a "monumental day" and "absolutely historic," but cautioned that Colorado still has a long road ahead battling COVID-19.

“I know people want to move fast, but we have to be careful,” he said. “This is just the beginning of a very long road. This is the gateway to the end of this pandemic.”

Bookman added: “The masks, they’re not coming off for a while. We need to be patient.”

After helping to place the tray of vaccines into the freezer at the state health lab, Polis marveled at the scientific achievement of developing and distributing a vaccine in such a short amount of time.

“This is also a triumph of modern science,” Polis said. “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.”

Polis said he hoped the milestone will inspire a “whole new generation” of young people to become scientists.

“You got to witness real history today,” he said to those gathered at the state lab.

As he touted the achievement, the governor also nodded to the damage coronavirus has caused to Colorado, including the more than 3,000 who have died from the disease.

“For them, the vaccine (has) come too late,” he said. “But for others, people that will be with us for decades to come, their lives will be saved because of the vaccine that’s arrived here today.”

Asked if the arrival of the vaccine is a weight lifted off of him, Polis said yes.

“As leader, a lot of this has been on my shoulders,” he said. “But this has been on the shoulders of every Colorado family -- whether you got COVID or not, whether you personally lost somebody or not. The economic, the social impact, the psychological impact -- this has been a very tough year.”

Denver Post reporters Jessica Seaman and Saja Hindi contributed pool reporting from Fort Collins.

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