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High stakes and big challenges await as the U.S. prepares to roll out vaccines against COVID-19, with front-line health care workers and vulnerable nursing home residents recommended as the top priority.
Doses could be on their way very soon. An independent advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday gave a green light to the first vaccine candidate, made by Pfizer in conjunction with the German company BioNTech — a recommendation expected to be approved by the agency within days. The committee is scheduled to consider a second candidate, made by Moderna, Dec. 17.
On tap is an initial stockpile of vaccines made during the approval process, with federal officials hoping to distribute at least 20 million doses by year’s end.
While that will go a long way toward reaching the top-priority groups — the nation’s 21 million health care workers and 3 million long-term care residents — there won’t be enough to inoculate everyone on Day One, or even the first week.
In Ohio, for example, the governor expects an initial delivery of 98,000 doses, with the state allocating 88,000 of those to long-term care facilities, said Pete Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities.
“It’s more than a drop in the bucket, but it’s not all that’s needed,” said Van Runkle, who estimated there are between 150,000 and 175,000 residents and staff members in long-term care centers in the state.
Consequently, the doses will be distributed in waves, with the centers and hospitals not chosen for the first wave getting them in the coming weeks, he said.
Facilities will have to divvy up the supplies to best address the needs of patients and employees.
For hospitals, first up are likely to be “workers with the greatest exposure” to the virus, said Anna Legreid Dopp, a senior director at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, a trade group representing more than 55,000 pharmacists who work for hospitals and health systems.
Then who? Perhaps those with personal medical conditions putting them at higher risk. And there may be other considerations specific to individual hospitals. What if, for example, only two people are trained to run a specialized treatment system in the ICU needed to care for patients seriously ill with COVID-19?
“Are they at the top of the list?” asked Dopp.
Nursing homes have a slightly different calculation because they have fewer employees than hospitals, said Van Runkle.
“It’s more a question of choosing which facilities” will get the initial doses, he said. “Once those are chosen, they’ll vaccinate everyone there [who consents], not pick and choose among people.”
Even so, there may be some selectivity because most nursing home employees are women and many are of child-bearing age. Because the vaccines have not yet been tested on pregnant women, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding may not be eligible in the initial rollout.