By Katie Jickling/VTDigger
If all goes smoothly, doses of a Covid -19 vaccine could be distributed throughout Vermont this week, but likely won’t be administered to anyone until next week.
Doctors, state officials, and nursing home administrators are scrambling to get ready to offer the first doses, which will go to high-risk Vermonters. Medical teams are trying to plan for every possible scenario — fewer doses than expected, late shipments, less interest in the vaccine.
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to give emergency authorization to the first Covid vaccine from Pfizer by Dec. 10. The first batch for the state is expected to include 5,850 doses, which will be administered to health care workers and long-term care residents. (An equivalent number of doses will be held in reserve to ensure those patience receive the required second dose.)
Chris Finley, the immunization program director for the Dept. of Health, has been assigned to coordinate a web of logistics: how to ship, store and administer the vaccine, as well as to persuade Vermonters to get it.
Vermont reported a record number of cases in November, as Covid continues to engulf the U.S. To avoid getting mired in the details of what will be the largest immunization effort in U.S. history, Finley tries to “stay focused on the prize.”
“Getting this vaccine out to people, having people be vaccinated and protected,” she said.
Pfizer says its vaccine is 95% effective and has caused no major side effects, though full scientific details won’t be released until the FDA grants emergency approval. It will be free for anyone who wants it, and will require two doses, administered three weeks apart. Health regulators in the United Kingdom determined on Wednesday, Dec. 2, that the vaccine was safe for distribution.
The most vulnerable Americans will get first dibs. On Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 1, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of doctors and public health professionals that provides vaccine guidance, issued national recommendations that placed long-term care residents at the top of the list, along with health care workers.
The federal government has contracted with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies to coordinate facilities, schedule the immunizations, and administer the vaccines.
As the first-ever Covid vaccine, “the dress rehearsal is the play,” said Ted Doyle, and the company will conduct a “full-scale educational campaign” among residents and their families, explaining the benefits of the vaccine, as well as possible side effects.
Freezers and high-risk workers
The state will also offer the vaccine to roughly 25,000 health care workers who provide direct care to patients, including doctors and nurses, as well as nursing home staff and emergency responders. The state is still finalizing which people, exactly, qualify for the first round, Finley said.
When more vaccines are available, the state will offer immunizations to high-risk Vermonters — older adults, teachers and school staff, essential workers, and people living in group homes, such as homeless shelters. Younger, healthier Vermonters, and people who don’t fall into other categories will follow — perhaps by spring.
For now, the federal government is providing a limited number of vaccine doses based on state population, with shipments coming in each week, Finley said. “But in the beginning, understand that the number of doses that Vermont will receive is going to be limited,” she said.
Another vaccine, made by Moderna, could be approved by the end of the year. That should make more doses available, Finley said.
The state is also figuring out how many vaccine doses will go to which hospitals, which then will provide the vaccine to their own employees and other health care workers in the area. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored in ultra-cold freezers, at 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, though it can last at refrigerated temperatures for five days.
Seven of the state’s 14 hospitals have the ultra-cold freezers, Finley said.
At Copley, once doctors receive the vaccines, they’ll set up shop in one of the hospital’s buildings, offering injections to their employees and to other health workers in the community. They hope to provide 200 vaccines a day for five days, Dupuis said.
Then they’ll receive another batch.
A matter of persuasion
Hospital leaders are deciding how enthusiastically they should encourage staff to get the vaccine.
The fact that the CDC is granting an emergency use authorization rather than full approval means “at some level it’s experimental,” Dupuis said.
National surveys have estimated that 60% of the U.S. population would be willing to get the vaccine. Dupuis said he guessed that the same percentage of people at Copley will sign on.
“If everything Pfizer says turns out to be true, I’ll get [the vaccine],“ he said.
People will be more comfortable getting the vaccine once scientists vet the information and people more fully understand it, said Tim Lahey, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
The vaccine will be free, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine reiterated at the regular press conference, Dec. 8.