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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Seth Callan, with the Hamilton County Health Department, gives an injection as first responders get their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Hubert Fry Center on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

Chattanooga's first responders were among those vaccinated against COVID-19 on Wednesday, the first day of vaccinations run by the local health department.

Mayor Andy Berke said local first responders can be an example for others in the community as the vaccine becomes more widely available.

"This is really the beginning of the end," Berke said. "This is how we start to move forward as a community."

On Tuesday, the Hamilton County Health Department announced it received 1,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine and said it expected to receive an additional 1,800 doses Wednesday. The health department is using the Tennessee Riverpark Hubert Fry Center for distribution. The park will be closed Dec. 23, and Dec. 26 to Dec. 29, while vaccines are being distributed.

The vaccinations Wednesday began with those on the front line in fighting the virus and those at most risk of severe cases, including hospital staff, first responders, home health care staff, as well as staff and residents of long-term care facilities, according to the state's distribution plan.

More distribution days will be scheduled when more shipments arrive, including doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the department said.

Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy said he was grateful for the arrival of the vaccine and thanked first responders for continuing to work in the months since March when the pandemic first hit the area.

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First COVID-19 vaccines roll out in Chattanooga

"We are extremely grateful to be able to provide this to our front line workers that have been out there since the pandemic started," Roddy said. "They have placed themselves in an enhanced area of risk for almost nine months at this point. Unfortunately, they've been called into a pandemic. They've had to go into settings, inside people's homes, close interactions and they haven't been able to avoid them."

In August, Chattanooga Fire Department Chief Phil Hyman said his department was struggling to meet minimum staffing requirements with a limited city budget and fulfilling the necessary sick leave required for first responders exposed to the virus.

On Tuesday, Dr. Fernando Urrego, a pediatrician for the Hamilton County Health Department, called the vaccine a game-changer in the fight against the virus. The vaccine uses a protein imitating the COVID-19 protein to carry a specific genetic code and help the body build up immunity to the virus, Urrego said.

The science behind the vaccine is solid, he said, and people should look at mild side effects, such as fever or chills, as a sign the vaccine is working. The Moderna vaccine was found to be 94% effective in initial studies, which led to it receiving the emergency use authorization.

Urrego said the public should know the vaccine reduces the risk of getting COVID-19 but it does not protect them 100% and they should still wear masks and socially distance for the immediate future.

"We are finally starting to see the end of this very, very, very long tunnel," Urrego said on Tuesday. "These vaccines are amazing. They're incredibly safe and they're incredibly effective."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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