By Carol Vaughn —
Virginia officials are preparing to receive an estimated 480,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine from manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna by the end of December, according to a press release from the Virginia Department of Health.
Some of those doses will come to the Eastern Shore, where Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital now has on site an ultra-cold freezer capable of storing tens of thousands of doses of the Pfizer vaccine at the required temperature of up to minus-70 degrees Celsius.
Riverside Health System purchased the equipment for each of its hospitals earlier this year, at a cost of more than $20,000 each, according to Cindy Williams, Riverside Health System vice president and chief pharmacy officer.
“From our perspective, it is a community resource and we are more than happy to work on storage of vaccine for other entities if we need to, such as Rural Health and the local health district,” Williams said.
The first doses will go to health care workers, followed by long-term care residents, according to the VDH.
Around 250 to 300 doses likely will come in the initial shipment to Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital, Williams said.
There are up to 500,000 health care workers and long-term care facility residents in Virginia.
“Vaccine will be provided to Virginians in a way that is fair, ethical, and transparent,” said Dr. Norman Oliver, Virginia state health commissioner, in the release.
“We will focus initially on the groups that have been most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 infections and those whose work puts them at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19 infections. Over time, as more vaccine supply becomes available, more Virginians will be able to get vaccinated, and we can look forward to a time when this pandemic will end,” Oliver said.
More details likely will be known about the next phases of vaccination — including of essential workers and other high-risk adults, teachers, and residents of congregate settings, among other groups — after a federal committee meets this weekend, Williams said.
One group not anticipated to be vaccinated in the earliest phases is children because clinical trials for the vaccines have not yet been conducted for them.
“Several manufacturers have just started phase 3 clinical trials in children, so we do expect that that will come within the months to come,” Williams said.
Some people are asking about safety of getting together with friends and loved ones during the upcoming period when some will have been vaccinated and others will not yet.
For the timebeing, “the general idea right now is that, even if you have been vaccinated, you still need to follow the precautions. You still need to mask, you still need to social distance, and you still need to wash your hands,” Williams said adding it likely will be next summer “before we have a great enough group of people that have been vaccinated to actually say we can let down our guard on our masking at least.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ (ACIP) voted Tuesday to recommend health care workers and long-term care facility residents be the top priorities for vaccination once the FDA issues emergency authorization for the vaccines.
The Virginia Medical Disaster Advisory Committee and the Virginia Unified Command voted this week to follow those priorities.
Virginia expects to receive its first shipment of 72,150 doses from Pfizer in mid-December. The doses will be distributed to health care systems around the state with the required ultracold storage.
Riverside anticipates receiving its first doses next week, which will go to health care workers.
Weekly shipments are expected after that and will be divided among health care workers and long-term care facility residents — most nursing home residents will get their vaccinations from CVS and Walgreens’ teams through a federal partnership with the companies, according to the VDH.
Riverside is collaborating with the Eastern Shore Health District and Eastern Shore Rural Health to plan for future vaccination efforts, according to Williams, who said Riverside has completed a redistribution plan and agreement required by the CDC and the VDH.
The health district “has been working closely with Eastern Shore Rural Health and Riverside throughout the pandemic,” said Jonathan Richardson, chief operating officer.
“Vaccination efforts are no different than prevention and treatment and, as such, we have been coordinating vaccination efforts with them through regular, frequent communication. All three of us will have roles in providing vaccinations to our different priority groups,” he said.
Riverside likely will store the vaccine and distribute doses to clinics run by the other health organizations.
“We’re ready to go; its really just talking through…who, what, when as far as how we will then start getting outreach to the larger health care community on the Eastern Shore,” Williams said.
There are logistics involved.
Once taken out of the ultracold freezer, the Pfizer vaccine can be stored under refrigeration for up to five days; if taken from the freezer to room temperature, it must be used within six hours.
Both vaccines require two doses given a few weeks apart to be effective.
Riverside will schedule an appointment automatically for its employees and, in later phases, its patients to receive their second dose after they get the first one.
As with other vaccines, any severe reaction is required to be reported by the health provider to a national reporting system, Williams said.
“It is important for us to be as clear and open as possible relative to all aspects of the vaccine. Known adverse reactions attributed to the vaccine will be communicated with the public,” Richardson said.
Hospital Capacity an Issue, Again
Dr. Mike Dacey, Riverside Health System president, urged Shore residents to keep doing the things that help prevent the virus’ spread — wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining social distance.
“You’re near the finish line, hopefully, with the vaccines coming, and you would hate to stumble and fumble on the five-yard line,” he said.
While he noted the Shore so far has fared better than some other parts of the state, Dacey said RSMH as of Wednesday morning had only one bed available in the intensive care unit.
The hospital as of Wednesday was treating six COVID-19 patients, three of whom were in the ICU, he said.
Dacey said the health system as a whole is seeing an increase in cases.
“It’s getting busier — perhaps not as busy as some of the other parts of the region or the mid-Atlantic, but it’s still a very significant increase over the way it was a few weeks ago.”
In spring, when hospital capacity was stretched to its limits, some patients from the Shore were taken to Riverside’s Newport News hospital.
That could happen again if necessary and remains the plan, but Dacey noted capacity at the Newport News facility “is pretty substantially stressed as well right now.”
“They really have seen a big, big increase. … They have almost 40 COVID patients in the hospital there,” he said.
“The hospital capacity across the region is very, very stressed and even a few additional cases could really tip things over, so it’s very important that people continue to do all the things that they have been doing over the course of the last six months or so” to prevent the virus’ spread, Dacey said.
The stress on the health system also includes workers who can’t come to work because of the virus.
Riverside at present has around 180 employees across its system who are not at work because they are either quarantining or tested positive, Dacey said.
On the Eastern Shore, 155 COVID-19 cases associated with 19 outbreaks have been reported among health care workers since the pandemic began.
Still, Dacey said the Shore as a whole has “been doing an excellent job…from a public health standpoint,” noting that after a spike in cases from outbreaks in two poultry plants last spring, “it came right down, and now, for several months, the Eastern Shore has had amongst the lowest rates in the entire state per person.”
For more information about VDH’s COVID-19 Vaccination Response Plan, visit: www.vdh.virginia.gov/covid-19-vaccine