HACKENSACK, N.J. — It’s what doctors at Hackensack Meridian Health are calling the “beginning of the end” of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Two days following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s sign-off on the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in the United States, Hackensack Meridian Health’s Dr. Lisa Tank was among the first of a network of roughly 36,000 team members and physicians to receive her first dose of the highly-anticipated vaccine against Covid-19 before a live audience.

“Today truly is a remarkable day,” said Hackensack Meridian Health Chief Operating Officer Robert Garrett. “Never before has our nation attempted such a mass vaccination of our citizens. We have delivered a safe and effective vaccine in record time, about 10 months. This is, in my opinion, truly the beginning of the end of this nightmare of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s the good news that the entire world has been waiting for and needs right now. Hackensack Meridian Health is so honored to be making history as one of the first vaccination sites in the entire nation.”

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The vaccine — which was authorized Sunday by the FDA for emergency use in the U.S. before the CDC signed the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ recommendation of the first authorized coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older hours later — is 95% effective.    

Dr. Tank, the chief medical officer at Hackensack UMC, was vaccinated at 10:36 a.m. Tuesday during a news conference held on the rooftop garden of the John Theurer Cancer Center.

“I didn’t feel it,” said Tank to Dr. Joe Underwood, who administered the vaccine before a small crowd which included hospital personnel and members of the media. Before she received her vaccination, Tank called it a triumph over the fight against Covid, and stressed her trust and faith in the science behind it.

Dr. Daniel Varga, chief physician executive, cited the ripple effect getting the Covid-19 vaccine, which will be made available to the public by next summer, will have on the rest of the country and the world.  

“For folks who have been living this every day, to roll up their sleeve, stick out their arm, and say, ‘Give me this vaccine,’ is an example to the rest of the country to let everybody know that this is safe," he said. "We believe in it, we trust it, we’re going to do it we’re going to recommend it to our family, and we’re going to make it happen.” 

Garrett said 170 doses of the two-dose vaccine -- which are being stored in freezers -- will be administered Tuesday to hospital staff with another 7,000 doses expected this week. Roughly 80% of the network is anticipated to receive the vaccination within four weeks, with emergency department workers whose exposure to the potentially deadly virus is the highest being a priority.

“Once we have vaccinated all of our team members who want to receive this protection, we will begin to vaccinate the public,” said Garrett, adding that there will be 30 vaccination sites including the network’s hospitals and urgent care centers, in addition to a soon-to-be announced mega site location which the network is working with the New Jersey Department of Health to help expedite the process. 

Seventy percent of the New Jersey population, Garrett announced, is anticipated to be vaccinated in the next six months, according to a timetable set by the state Department of Health under Governor Murphy.

“At this rate, we will have herd immunity in the next several months and the darkest days of this pandemic will be behind us,” said Garrett.

While Garrett expressed his elation about the much-anticipated Covid-19 vaccination, he also remains sensitive to the lives lost, which will continue amidst the second wave of the insidious virus in the months to come. 

“Covid-19 now kills more than one American every minute,” said Garrett. “I can’t help but to think of colleagues, neighbors and loved ones that we have lost and those we will lose before the vaccine is widely available.”  

Currently, the coronavirus has killed more than 301,000 lives in America and touched 16.6 million to date, with 1.62 million deaths and 72.8 million cases worldwide. Hackensack Meridian Health, specifically, Hackensack University Medical Center, was in the epicenter of the pandemic when it was declared one by the World Health Organization in March, treating more Covid-19 patients than any other hospital in the state at the time, Garrett said.

He thanked the physicians on the frontline for their “extraordinary skills, compassion and courage” in battling the Covid-19 pandemic for almost a year.

“When the books are written about this relentless pandemic, they will be remembered as true American heroes,” said Garrett.

Speaking of, Harry Carson, National Football League Hall of Famer and New York Giants legend, spoke of his brush with the virus back in March and championing the Covid-19 vaccination. He said he attributes his physical fitness and his fearless attitude to having bounced back and encouraged others to adapt the same mindset.

“I’m very lucky I only had a slight bout of it, but I think so much about all of those people who didn’t get just one day or two days, but many days of dealing with this virus, especially those who are in the minority communities who are afraid to go to the hospital or seek help," he said touching his heart. "I've been one of those people that I’ve been very conscious about health... I’ve done many things within the North Jersey and Bergen County area in regard to Prostate Cancer awareness and I think to myself, in those situations I’m dealing with, African-American men who are afraid to go to the doctor with this Covid-19."

He continued, "This is not just about men; it's about everybody. Everybody needs to understand there’s a possibility that if you don’t take the vaccination, you can catch it and you can die. And you have to do it, not only for yourself, but for your family… When it’s time for me to be vaccinated, I will be first in line.”

Carson reflected on his time with Big Blue three decades ago and playing an integral role in their mission: to do the best you can.

“Be the best you can be for the team," he said. "Everybody is on the same team. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how much you make, what your religion is, what your political position is. Everyone is on the same team. I would strongly encourage those in the African-American community to not be afraid, but to step forward and do it, if not for yourself, for others in your home, in our community.”  

Garrett echoed those sentiments.

“We must keep our guard up,” he said. “We cannot give in to Covid fatigue or view the vaccine as a magic bullet. Please get vaccinated.”