Joseph B. Gipson, an environmental services worker at UW Medical Center, gives a thumbs-up when asked if he’s ready to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at UW Medicine on Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Joseph B. Gipson, an environmental services worker at UW Medical Center, gives a thumbs-up when asked if he’s ready to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at UW Medicine on Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

5,000-6,000 vaccine doses to land in the county this week

The historic milestone comes while hospitalizations and deaths from COVID remain high.

EVERETT — We’re many months away from normal, and the current situation is still dire, local leaders stressed Tuesday, but it’s the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

Later this week, 5,000 to 6,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine are expected to land in Snohomish County.

About half are heading to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett — less than a year after the hospital treated the country’s first COVID patient.

“I think it’s a palpable excitement,” said the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jay Cook. “We’ve experienced the whole ebb and flow of this. We’re extremely excited to be among the first in the country to get it.”

The early doses are reserved for high-risk health care workers, and then residents and staff of long-term care homes.

The vaccine’s arrival marks a turning point in the fight against the coronavirus, but the county is still experiencing record-high case counts, while hospitalizations and deaths from the virus remain at alarming levels.

Masks and social distancing are still critical to stopping the spread, county health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said during a Tuesday media briefing.

“It’s at best unsafe, and considerably reckless, to consider us out of the woods at this point,” Spitters said. “There’s a long way to go.”

The county’s rolling case rate hit 448 new infections per 100,000 residents in the two-week period ending Saturday. That’s the highest the figure has ever been — up from the 426 per 100,000 reported last week.

As of Tuesday, 93 people were hospitalized due to the virus, and 17 required ventilators to breathe.

In the first week of December, 20 people in the county died from COVID. The week before that, 23 people died. Those numbers mirror highs previously seen in the spring.

Countywide, there are outbreaks at 56 long-term care homes and 65 businesses, Spitters said.

Recent data also show that Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Indigenous and African-American residents in the county make up a disproportionate number of cases and hospitalizations.

But the third wave could be reaching its peak, Spitters said.

The rate at which cases are rising in the county is slowing, and hospitalizations have been relatively stable.

“I’m hoping we’re at the crest of the wave,” Spitters said. “But, one, only time will tell. And, two, it’s still in our hands. If we let go of it, it’s going to go back up, and we will be looking at increasing hospitalizations.”

UW Medicine employees look on and applaud as the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination is completed at UW Medicine Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

UW Medicine employees look on and applaud as the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination is completed at UW Medicine Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Statewide, tens of thousands of doses were delivered to hospitals this week.

On Tuesday, a nurse in Seattle became the first person in Washington to receive a shot.

By the end of the month, the state expects to have received 400,000 vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna.

Spitters estimated it will take between six months to a year before vaccines are widely available.

So it will be a slow crawl back to pre-pandemic life, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said during Tuesday’s media briefing.

“I think there will be some points along the way where things open up,” he said. “It’ll be a little bit of a rollercoaster, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

How the vaccine works

Some vaccines use a small dose of a live virus to trigger an immune response that teaches your body to develop antibodies.

That’s not the case for the Pfizer treatment.

Instead, it uses messenger RNA that gives your body instructions for creating one of the proteins found in the coronavirus, which triggers your body to create antibodies that protect you from infection.

With no live virus, there’s no risk of you getting COVID from the vaccine.

But you could experience some symptoms — a sore arm, fatigue, headaches, light fever — for a few days.

“Your immune system is responding,” said Patsy Stinchfield, a nurse practitioner and president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, during a Monday town hall hosted by the Poynter Institute. “It sees the bad guy, it’s making the good guys. It’s far, far better than having COVID disease.”

The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots, separated by about three weeks.

The time between the two doses allows your body to develop the immune response.

The first shot provides some protection from the virus, while the second acts as a booster to create robust defense.

Seattle Fire Department paramedic Alan Goto (right) receives one of the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations by registered nurse Allison Miller at UW Medicine on Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Seattle Fire Department paramedic Alan Goto (right) receives one of the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations by registered nurse Allison Miller at UW Medicine on Tuesday in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

It’s unclear how long people will be protected from COVID after getting the vaccine.

Some evidence suggests it could last for years, said Dr. Paul Offit during the town hall event. Offit served on a federal Food and Drug Administration panel that OK’d the Pfizer vaccine and previously co-invented a rotavirus vaccine.

Experts don’t know if vaccinated people are capable of spreading the virus, even though they’re protected from contracting it.

It could take months to figure that out, Offit said.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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