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Tennessee's first shipment of highly anticipated coronavirus vaccine is expected to arrive in about three weeks, according to the state's top health official.

Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine will be the first shipped out across the United States and should reach Tennessee around Dec. 15. Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, shared the news during a briefing Tuesday.

How many doses the state will receive is fluid, but Piercey said the ballpark for the initial shipment is between 80,000 and 100,000 doses. Each person will need two doses of vaccine spaced several weeks apart, meaning the first allotment will cover between 40,000 and 50,000 people.

"This is the one ray of hope that we've got, and so we are putting a ton of effort forth to make sure we get it to you as fast and as safely as possible," Piercey said, adding that all vaccine distribution plans are subject to change.

Pfizer's vaccine is reported to be 95% effective based on late-stage clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to meet Dec. 10 to discuss Pfizer's trial data and will ultimately decide whether it receives emergency use authorization, according to The New York Times.

More vaccine from another leading drug manufacturer — Moderna — is expected to arrive a week after Pfizer's, Piercey said.

Although the initial shipments may seem small in the context of 6.8 million Tennesseans, she said, "We're going to start to see some measurable improvement in our case trends when we get some vaccines in arms."

The welcome news comes as Tennessee and the country continue to face record numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

On Tuesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 264 new infections and five additional COVID-19 deaths, making November the deadliest month for the virus in the county, with 29 deaths so far and six days still remaining in the month.

Hamilton County is averaging 227 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, a record, and a positivity rate of 22% for new tests in the past week, another record. As of Tuesday there were 136 people hospitalized with the virus and 30 people in intensive care units, according to health department data.

Gov. Bill Lee said during Tuesday's news conference that vaccines will be "very important for us in this state to curb the spread of the virus and to ultimately really be able to handle it."

The state will follow its draft plan to determine vaccine distribution to at-risk groups first based on supply.

Front-line health care workers and first responders — those most likely to come into contact with infected people or materials — will be vaccinated first. Examples include emergency department and intensive care unit staff, people conducting mass testing events and first responders who arrive at scenes without knowing the status of those they're treating.

"We need to make sure that those folks are protected so we can keep our health care workers on the front lines," Piercey said, adding that she anticipates widespread vaccine availability sometime in summer 2021.

(READ MORE: What Chattanooga area nurses treating COVID-19 patients had to say after work)

Pfizer's vaccine must be stored at an ultra-low temperature, so the state will use special coolers filled with dry ice called "thermal shippers" that hold 975 vials each in order to distribute shipments faster, rather than relying on a large stationary freezer for storage.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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