Pressure to create a coronavirus vaccine is increasing by the day, but for a safe vaccine to enter the market, it takes time.
Public health officials voted Tuesday to add residents of long-term care facilities to front-line health care workers as the first Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Nursing home residents previously had been further down the priority list to vaccinate as doses become available.
“My vote reflects maximum benefit, minimum harm, promoting justice and mitigating health care inequalities,” said Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices chairman Dr. Jose Romero, chief medical officer of the Arkansas Department of Health
The ACIP is an independent group convened by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to offer advice on who should get specific vaccines and when.
Those in the so-called Phase 1a group would be followed by essential workers in Phase 1b, then adults with high-risk medical conditions and people 65 and older in Phase 1c. Other populations at lower risk of serious illness from COVID-19 would come later next year.
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The vaccinations could begin within the next two to three weeks, when Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is expected to get an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. A second vaccine developed by Moderna is about a week behind.
Vaccinations should proceed at a rapid pace. Everyone in Phase 1a should be able to get the first of the two-shot COVID-19 vaccine series within three weeks of one being authorized by the FDA, said Dr. Nancy Messionier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
In a stark reminder of what’s at stake, at the beginning of the meeting, member Dr. Beth Bell noted that COVID-19 is killing Americans at a rate of one per minute and 180 likely would die during the three hours the meeting was scheduled.
In this file photo taken on April 24, 2020, shows the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: TAMI CHAPPELL, AFP via Getty Images)
There are expected to be 40 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine available by the end of December, enough to vaccinate 20 million people with the necessary two doses, said committee staff member Dr. Amanda Cohen.
An additional 5 million to 10 million doses are expected to become available every week thereafter. For a short period of time, vaccine will have to be rationed even among the first group, Cohen said.
The ACIP vote is only for planning purposes, noted Dr. Sharon Frey of the Saint Louis University Medical School. The recommendations will not apply to a specific vaccine until one is authorized by the FDA and the ACIP votes on recommendations for that vaccine.
The reason is that all vaccines are different, even all COVID-19 vaccines. Some might be better for younger people, some for older people. The recommendations are tailored to the vaccine’s characteristics which won’t be known until it is authorized. However, states need to begin planning now so ACIP voted on recommendations for the highest priority recipients so states have that essential information to work with.
The first FDA-authorized vaccine is expected to come from Pfizer and requires ultracold storage at minus 70 Fahrenheit degrees. It is shipped in cartons that each contain 975 doses. Because of that, the initial vaccine distribution likely will be to medical centers that have a large enough staff to quickly use that much vaccine.
The vaccine side effects will present another layer of complication because immunizations must be staggered to medical staff members.
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It’s known the vaccines can cause people to feel lousy for a day or two after vaccination. If an entire emergency department or all the caregivers at a nursing home were to be vaccinated at the same time, too many might need to take a day or two off at the same time due to the side effects, CDC experts told the panel Tuesday.
Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, cast the lone vote against adding nursing home residents to the first wave. She remained concerned about the potential reaction of those vulnerable people to the new vaccine. She recommended vaccinating workers at long-term care facilities rather than residents.
Talbot said she’s particularly worried the system for tracking vaccine reactions won’t be sufficient to protect nursing home residents.
“We hope it works and we hope it’s safe and that concerns me on every level,” she said.
She reassured health care workers that she had “no reservations” about them taking the vaccine. “This is amazing data about a respiratory vaccine that we’ve never seen before and it’s incredibly exciting,” she said.
But reflecting the overall view of the committee, Dr. Beth Bell of the University of Washington in Seattle, called group’s decision “the best choice at this time to save the most lives and prevent as much disease as possible.”
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