SALT LAKE CITY — Utah health officials have placed their first order of a COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed to hospitals later this month.
Utah Department of Health individuals tweeted out a video of them placing the order, which they expected to arrive around Dec. 15.
“These doses will be shipped directly to hospitals in Utah as soon as the FDA formally approves the vaccine,” the agency tweeted.
This afternoon we placed our first order for COVID-19 vaccines! These doses will be shipped directly to hospitals in Utah as soon as the FDA formally approves the vaccine. We expect to receive these doses sometime around Dec. 15. State of Utah Covid-19 Response pic.twitter.com/ljKXH695Yu
— Utah Dept. of Health (@UtahDepOfHealth) December 3, 2020
The purchase happened hours after leaders from two of Utah’s largest health care providers said they expected the first rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to frontline workers at five of Utah’s largest hospitals by mid-December.
First doses to health care workers
Officials from Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health provided a look at how they will administer the first rounds of the vaccine during a press briefing Thursday morning. The first rounds are to be given to frontline staff at LDS Hospital and University Hospital in Salt Lake City, Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, and the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.
Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer, chief of infection prevention at University of Utah Health, and Dr. Kristin Dascomb, medical director of infection prevention employee health at Intermountain Healthcare, said that the first round of doses will be distributed shortly after the Pfizer vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA will vote on an Emergency Use Authorization, or EUA, approval for the vaccine on Dec. 10.
“We will receive at each facility at least a few thousand doses per facility,” Dascomb said.
Once the FDA approves an EUA, high-risk frontline staff like doctors, nurses, technicians and environmental service housekeeping workers close to COVID-19 patients will get the first round of doses, Mayer and Dascomb explained.
“It’s just so incredibly important to make sure that we keep our health care systems intact and able to care for the most vulnerable in our populations,” Mayer said. “We’re really targeting those health care personnel that have been on the front line taking care of our COVID patients since March.”
University of Utah Health plans to have a central location set up with a system in place to contact employees about when to get vaccinated, but that’s still in the works. It needs to be a strategic process so there will be enough workers in hospitals to care for patients at the hospitals that have been on the brink of being overwhelmed for weeks.
“Our plan very much mirrors the description that Dr. Mayer rolled out,” Dascomb said. “We anticipate the vaccine will be available as early as mid-December, and we’ve been preparing for this for several months, as has the university.”
The vaccines won’t be required at any of the five hospitals, and medical staff who decline to get the vaccine won’t be punished, officials for both health care systems said. Instead, they encourage employees to get the vaccine because of its benefits.
Dr. Andrew Pavia, an infectious disease specialist for University of Utah Health, explained they’ve had to implement a structure of who gets a vaccine first among health care workers because there just isn’t enough doses available to vaccinate all health care workers right away.
Mayer said it’s expected that they will distribute 500 to 750 vaccines per day early on, with operations expanding as more doses become available. The health care systems will work with the Moderna vaccine as soon as it is approved, as well. That’s expected to happen later this month.
It’s expected that another 30 hospitals in the state will begin to receive doses to distribute in the coming weeks as the state receives more orders. For now, hospitals across the state are gearing up to ensure their systems are ready to safely store the vaccine doses since they are “very delicate.” Staff will have about 1 minute to move vaccine doses to storage facilities, officials said.
Dascomb said all five hospitals that will receive the vaccine first have the capability to safely store the vaccine. Mayer said freezers are set at -80 degrees with a temperature monitoring system in place and “backups to the backups” to ensure the vaccine remains at the proper temperature in storage. Staff at all five hospitals will also be trained on how to handle the vaccine correctly.
Utah Department of Health officials released their preliminary vaccine rollout timeline last month. They anticipated that every Utah adult would have access to the vaccine by summer 2021. Plans for administering the vaccine to children will be included once studies involving people under the age of 18 have concluded. Those remain ongoing.
Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director for Intermountain Healthcare, said it appears that the state timeline hasn’t shifted over the past few weeks. That means a measure to speed up the timeframe for long-term care facility residents passed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week likely won’t alter when low-risk individuals will receive the vaccine in Utah. In fact, that won’t affect the timeframe of the initial doses either, Sheffield said.
Vaccine administration and side effects
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are administered in two doses. Both health care providers said they would not hold back doses because two need to be distributed to people.
The two drug manufacturers said they’ve seen that the vaccine has an efficacy of 95% after a second dose is administered. Pavia said that is promising because it means that individuals’ risk of contracting COVID-19 would decrease 95% once they’ve received the vaccine doses.
That’s not to say there won’t be problems with the vaccines. Researchers are still determining all side effects of a vaccine. Some of the side effects known so far are mild headaches, muscle aches and fever, Pavia said. Some people have needed Tylenol, but there have “been no serious signals” from the studies, he added.
Pavia also believes the trials for the Pfizer and Moderna drug have been rather rigorous given the speed they’ve been conducted in. They’ve included over 70,000 total people between the ages of 18 and 80 combined, which is much larger than most vaccine studies. He did acknowledge there could be outliers once the vaccine is widely administered.
“Both of these vaccines are as safe as most vaccines we have out there,” he said. “What we study in tens of thousands of people gives us a really good idea of basic safety, but it doesn’t tell us what could happen at very rare levels — say 1 in 1 million or 1 in 500,000. We’re not going to know that for months.”
Given the mortality rate of COVID-19 is much higher than the reported probability of vaccine illness, he concluded the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks of the coronavirus.
Even though health experts are optimistic about the vaccine as distribution nears, Sheffield said just because it will come soon doesn’t mean people should no longer follow COVID-19 protocols. That means people will still be encouraged to follow the same COVID-19 guidelines for at least the next few months.
“Vaccines are the best tool, but they’re not the only tool,” she said. “We need to use all the tools in our toolbox in order to prevent the spread from us to other individuals. So continue to wear masks, continue to be socially distant, continue to make sure we wash our hands. When we are sick or have symptoms, that we stay home. And make sure that we doing everything that we can protect others around us so that we can then bring down the incidence of disease.”