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4 months after first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Tampa, there's hope but some concern over variants

COVID vaccine AP
Posted at 6:09 AM, Apr 14, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — Four months ago 20,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived for the first time in the Tampa Bay area at Tampa General Hospital.

Clinical Nurse Rafael Martinez gave that first COVID-19 vaccination to Nurse Vanessa Arroyo.

"I think I never stopped shaking. I was so nervous to look at those cameras. I've given a million of I.M. shots. And this was the shot," Martinez admitted.

Martinez says he had mixed emotions when holding that COVID vaccine in his hands for the very first time.

"Everything came to mind, everybody. It was the first responders. It was the scientists. It was the community. How finally we have that final tool that we need to help our community fight this, I call it 'invisible enemy' that nobody sees and he chooses his targets. And finally, we had the vaccine to help us," Martinez said.

Video Journalist Taylor Vinson has worked at ABC Action News for almost a decade and was the only news videographer to record that historic moment for stations and networks around the country and the world.

"It's literally history unfolding right in front of you, and I know that was such a privilege to be there that day. It was just this kind of incredible moment of me being up close and personal, just inches away from these tiny little vials that were going to change the world. So that's the moment that I know I'm going to remember for the rest of my life," Vinson said.

Pfizer vaccine arrives at Tampa General

After covering countless stories of tragic loss during this pandemic, Vinson was deeply moved to be filming what would finally save lives.

"I hope that I was able to be a small part that day of sort of heralding to the nation to the world, there's help on the way. There's help on the way," he said.

Tampa General Hospital's CEO John Couris says watching how the COVID-19 has affected the local community has been life-changing for him personally.

"When I would walk a COVID unit, and I would look in the rooms of these COVID patients, it's scary. They're scared. It's a real disease. They're fighting for their lives. They can't breathe." he explained.

So when he found out TGH was selected to be the only hospital in the area to receive the first round of vaccines, he was proud.

But even more proud of his employees' strength, grit and resiliency during this unprecedented time.

"To watch my team care for these people, these human beings, these souls that we're responsible for was amazing. It was absolutely amazing," he admitted.

When those 20,000 doses arrived, Couris says he was finally optimistic about the future.

"For the first time in a very long time, I felt very hopeful. The vaccine works. It's effective. You have to trust the science. And I just felt hopeful," he said.

Since the vaccine here in Florida is now open to all ages, reaching herd immunity could be in the near future.

But scientists also warn since COVID-19 is a global pandemic, variants are changing and spreading around the world. We can't let our guard down.

"This really is a global problem. We need to be thinking about global vaccination. We also need to be thinking about global surveillance. So if we're going to update this vaccine every three years or something, we really better know what's happening globally, so we can update it accurately," explained Dr. John Wherry, who's the Institute for Immunology Director at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wherry has been studying Covid variants and says they're constantly changing because the virus continues to mutate and spread.

"The longer we let the virus spread unchecked, the more risk we have of variants arising that our vaccines are not good at protecting from," Wherry explained.

Other doctors have similar concerns about the spread of new, even more contagious variants.

"Because Florida is a place there's a lot of international travel, as you kind of referenced, there's a lot of co-mingling of potential virus exposures and now you end up with all the different types of variants that you'll see around the world," explained TGH's Dr. Abe Schwarzberg, who has been researching the COVID variants as well with new technology.

He uses a patient's molecular fingerprint to better understand exactly which strain of any virus or disease they have.

"So being able to sequence based on a blood draw or a biopsy allows us to be very specific. And then tailor therapy as needed. And that's really a game-changer both in the cancer world as well as the infectious disease world," he said.

"I would highly, highly recommend getting vaccinated. In fact, it's a privilege, if you consider many of the countries that don't have access to vaccine," said Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, who's also on the frontlines of studying the new variants.

Lakshmi is the Medical Director at Tampa General's new Global Emerging Disease Institute.

With thousands still dying from COVID, Lakshmi is urging everyone to get the vaccine, even if you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

"I know there are questions around fertility and the long-term effects. And really, if you look at infectious disease, in general, the viruses have a lot more control over your body to cause infertility than any vaccine, ever. Even the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists endorse for pregnant women to get the vaccine. For mothers to be out there, please get your vaccine and protect yourself and your child," Lakshmi urged.

Lakshmi believes for our community to heal, we must honor all the suffering and grief we've been through but also have hope.

"We've come a long way. A long way from the unknowns, the fears. We have better tools today and better understanding. And I would really ask the community out there, please get your questions answered. Please get vaccinated," Lakshmi said.

So will we need to get vaccinated every year? Or even more often with booster shots?

Dr. Schwarzberg says the pharmaceutical companies and leading researchers are looking into those exact questions right now and there are clinical trials going on to find out.

When those results are released, ABC Action News will share them with you.