Coronavirus updates, Featured

Vt. celebrates arrival of Covid vaccine

State says immunity is still months away

By Polly Mikula

Governor Phil Scott announced the arrival in Vermont of the first 1,950 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the regular press conference Tuesday, Dec. 15. It was the first portion of the 5,850 doses expected to arrive in Vermont this week. The first doses arrived at approximately 8 a.m., Tuesday.

“This is an important milestone and an essential step toward defeating a virus that’s devastated families and businesses throughout Vermont and around the globe,” said Gov. Scott in a statement. “There is no better, safer or faster way to defeat this virus and work to rebuild our economy than a successful effort to make vaccines available to every single Vermonter. We are committed to working with our partners to get this done, so we can get through this and be stronger and more resilient than ever before.”

The number of vaccine doses each state receives is based on overall U.S. supply and is being distributed proportionally based on state population.

The Vermont Dept. of Health has been allocated weekly shipments of 5,850 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine through December.

“This is a pivotal moment, one that marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD. “As I’ve said before, however, this is just the start of a long process to receive and administer enough vaccine to bring Covid-19 under control. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of everyone keeping up their efforts to protect themselves and prevent spread of the virus. This is a time for great optimism and even greater vigilance to make it all happen.”

The initial doses are dedicated for use as the first of the required two-dose regimen. The manufacturer has reserved an equal number of the second dose, which will be shipped in the coming weeks and are to be administered 21 days after receiving the first dose. The vaccine must also be administered fairly quickly, “within a 120-hour window,” Levine said, Tuesday.

In addition to the 1,950 doses received, Levine said the health department expects another 1,950 doses to arrive later in the day Tuesday, and the remaining 1,950 will be shipped directly to pharmacies (Rite Aid, Walgreens and Kinney Drugs) which were contracted by the federal government to administer the vaccine at long term care facilities. Those vaccinations will begin Dec. 21, “making Vermont one of the earliest states to become operational within the federal government pharmacy partnership program,” Levine said.

The state will begin distributing its vaccine allocation to hospitals through the state immediately and expects the majority of the state’s hospitals will be administering first doses to front line heathcare workers starting Wednesday, Dec. 15.

Initial doses will go to the groups identified as priority populations by state and federal advisory committees. These include high-risk health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

In addition to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the Vermont has placed a pre-order for the Moderna vaccine, pending expected approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In total Vermont expects to have about 34,000 total doses of both vaccines by end of year. That will be enough to vaccinate most Vermonters working in priority heathcare settings and those working in skilled nursing facilities. However, to reach all healthcare workers and those working in assisted living, the state estimates it would need 50,000-60,000 doses. Levine said it would likely be into January before the state had sufficient doses to “cover that umbrella population.”

The next group of Vermonters to receive the vaccine will be “priority group 1-b.” Levine said the state advisory board is still finalizing who will be in that group, but said it would “certainly involve some combination of people over 65, those under 65 with immune compromises or with compromising chronic conditions, and more health care workers.”

However, he also cautioned Vermonters that vaccination does not mean a return to “normal.”

First, he said, a person has to get two shots before they’re immune and the second shot is administered 21 days after the first. Then it takes two to four weeks for it to work through your body and gain immunity.

Once fully vaccinated, Vermonters will still need need to take same precautions as before and “follow the same guidance as everyone else including wearing a mask and avoiding close contact with others. This is because even if the vaccine prevents you from getting the illness, we still don’t have enough information on whether you could still transmit the virus to someone else,” Levine explained.

How many people get vaccinated and how the virus continues to spread in communities (or not) will determine when and how the state will ease up on restrictions such as mask-wearing and physical distancing requirements, Levine said.

The most recent Kaiser poll showed that 75% of Americans now say they’ll get vaccinated. Levine said that was a significant increase from earlier polling and called it “very encouraging.” He said vaccinating 75% of the population would be “about what they’d look for to reach community (or herd) immunity.”

But that will take time. Levine said most of the scientific community guesses it will be fall before we can return to “normal” with no mask wearing or any other current lifestyle changes.

But that doesn’t mean a lot won’t change before then. “A vaccine for all is expected to be available in the spring and when the weather warms up again being outdoors will open many more opportunities and cases will get better again as we saw happen this summer,” Levine said.

“So let us be hopeful as we look ahead, but not let our optimism for the future overtake our need for vigilance,” Levine added.

Governor Scott echoed Levine’s optimism and caution, urging continued vigilance and adherence to health guidelines while waiting to be vaccinated. “What we have in the meantime are all the simple things we’ve talked about. This right here,” Scott said holding up his mask, “wearing a mask, is 50% effective, it’s 50% effective,” he repeated for emphasis. “So if you want to reduce your chance of getting Covid by 50%, just wear a mask, wash your hands, stay away from others, don’t go to work when you’re sick. It’s just as simple as that. You can reduce your chances by just taking those simple chances.”

What’s still unknown

Dr. Levine noted that there are still many unknowns when it comes to the Covid vaccine. Whether someone who has been vaccinated can still transmit Covid-19, is among the most important to determine.

While antibodies in a vaccinated person’s body will prevent that person from getting sick, “antibodies may not be in sufficient supply in the nose,” Levine said, explaining that it could be that only once the virus enters the body will it encounter enough antibodies to get inoculated. This means that that person could still transmit the virus to others.

“Studies, as time goes on, should help give a sense of how likely it is to transmit the virus after vaccination,” Levine said.

Levine said the questions he receives the most are, “How does it work?” and “What are the side effects?”

He acknowledged that understanding how the vaccine works is complicated, but assured Vermonters Tuesday that no Covid vaccine currently in development uses the live virus and it is impossible to get Covid-19 from the vaccine.

“The messenger RNA platform is not a common platform among other vaccines,” he said. “This is new technology, new understanding, it’s a scientific breakthrough.”

With regard to side effects, he said, “A very small percentage have any reaction at all. Most just have a similar experience to other shots.”

Levine noted that the effectiveness of the vaccine “…didn’t seem to matter if young or old, one race or another race,” though he did note that the “current vaccine is only authorized for people age 16 and older… we need more information about how it affects kids,” he said.

Over 40,000 people participated in the study prior to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine approval, and while that’s a sizable group, “not all factors could be considered,” as not all conditions could be accurately represented and studied, he said.

The durability of the vaccine, or how long its effectiveness will last, is also unknown. And different vaccines may have different durability, Levine noted.

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