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South Florida Roundup: Vaccines Arrive For Health Care Workers, Nursing Homes

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WLRN health reporter Verónica Zaragovia explained how the Pfizer vaccine works to fight off the coronavirus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization for Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 11. One week later, some frontline healthcare workers across South Florida have already received their first doses. So have residents and employees at at least one senior living community in Broward County, John Knox Village.

With more doses of the vaccine on the way here in the next few weeks, and Moderna's version of a vaccine edging closer to approval, which populations will have access to which brand of vaccine raises questions about health equity.

WLRN's "South Florida Roundup" spoke with health care workers. They are encouraging others to trust the vaccine and say they are feeling good — and incredibly hopeful — after getting their first doses.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Local journalists are working hard to keep you informed on the latest developments across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

WLRN health reporter Verónica Zaragovia explained how the vaccine works in the body:

"The coronavirus ... is studded with these spike proteins, it uses those to enter human cells. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine uses what's called messenger RNA or mRNA and it's an instruction for a cell on how to make a piece of that spike protein ... and that little piece will then generate the body to create antibodies to those and fight it off if you are actually exposed to the coronavirus," Zaragovia said.

"mRNA has been around for a long time, for decades, the FDA has approved this vaccine using that technology," she said. "You cannot get COVID-19 from this vaccine."

Moderna uses a similar technology. Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines instead use a modified virus (that causes the common cold) to trigger an immune response.

Dr. Hansel Tookes is an internal medicine physician at Jackson Health, with a focus on infectious diseases. He received his first dose of the vaccine on Tuesday during a press conference:

"I'm actually scared of needles," he said. "On a serious note, really what I was feeling was hope for the first time. ... I was very interested in getting the vaccine in a public way because I wanted to convey my confidence in the vaccine and that sense of hope to both my colleagues, my patients and the greater Miami community."

Tookes has been outspoken about getting others in Black communities to get the vaccine, and to trust it:

"All structures and systems have caused so much harm to Black communities through the years, so the distrust in the vaccine is completely understandable," he said. "But at the same time, we can't allow all of the historically terrible things that have happened to our ancestors to prevent us from taking part in this opportunity to lead towards health equity."

Mark Rayner, director of health care services at John Knox Village in Pompano Beach, works with residents at the senior living community. He received his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine earlier this week.

"It was a great day all around. ... When I went home, a little bit of tenderness at the injection site ... which is to be expected," he said. "I was asked are we going to change our practices now that we've got the vaccine, and my answer to that right now is no. We still want to keep our personal protective equipment on and do social distancing ... to do it the right way."

In the midst of the state's highest daily COVID-19 caseload this week since July, there is a surge in people going out to bars and nightlife across South Florida.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force released a report that directly contradicts Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' policies. The report recommends limiting indoor dining and bar capacities, and enforcing more strict mask policies.

Adam Gersten is the owner of the popular tavern in Wynwood, Gramps. He is currently at home battling his own case of COVID-19, thankfully mild.

"It's actually reinforced [the way I run Gramps.] I'm convinced that the way we're doing things — which is having people seated, walked to their tables, tables separated, keep your mask on, customers only allowed inside to use the restroom ... being outdoors only — I think we're doing basically everything we can."

"I'm in that camp that I believe full-capacity unmasked is prolonging the agony that we're not getting this under control," he said.

Gersten said small businesses like his need more financial support so they don't fall through funding loopholes.

"We got PPP money initially but that was early on, when it was only eight weeks. ... There are some programs to apply for through the city and county, but we're cut out of those," he said. "Because we're a tavern."

He said this stage of the pandemic has changed his holiday plans. He's not expecting any crowd on New Year's Eve:

"We decided yesterday we're not even going to open," he said. "We're just going to let people do what they want to do to exorcise the demons of 2020 on their own."
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