Here is wishing you a happy New Year and hoping that 2021 brings an end to this terrible pandemic. Indeed, 2020 ended with some positive news on that front — the FDA approval of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccinations and the beginning of distribution, albeit not as fast a distribution as we had hoped. However, three more vaccines are currently in the works with clinical trials in progress, and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is implementing a complex plan with many moving parts that is expected to get much quicker in the weeks ahead.
The vaccines are safe. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines utilize new mRNA technology. Many vaccines function by introducing a weakened or inactivated germ into our systems to allow our bodies to learn how to fight off a future infection. However, mRNA vaccines work differently and do not contain live viruses within doses, so they do NOT infect you with COVID-19. Instead, mRNA vaccines contain instructions to teach our cells how to make a “spike protein” that is found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. Once this spike protein has been produced, our immune systems recognize that the protein does not belong in our bodies, so it begins to build an immune response by creating antibodies. When presented with the real COVID-19 virus, our bodies will already know how to fight off an infection. No safety tests were cut to get the vaccines quickly to market. The approved vaccines have undergone rigorous review by scientists to ensure that these vaccines are safe and effective in preventing COVID-19. The clinical trials performed included people of all ages, races, and ethnicities to ensure that the vaccine was tested for safety in all populations.
After a little over a year of research and tracking this virus, there is much we still don’t know about COVID-19. However, what we do know is that COVID-19 is unpredictable. There is no way to know how COVID-19 will affect you. While some otherwise healthy people who have contracted COVID-19 have become seriously ill or have died, some only have mild symptoms. Much like the annual flu vaccinations, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine when you are eligible will greatly reduce your chances of being infected with COVID-19, and will allow your body to build immunity to ensure that if you become infected with the virus, you will have only mild symptoms or none at all.
Importantly, the vaccine will be offered to all Americans at no cost to you. The governor has included in his budget, for the upcoming session that starts next week, $90 million to administer the vaccination process.
The first recipients of the vaccine, in what is being termed phase 1A, include healthcare workers and residents living in long-term care facilities. This includes those health care workers who are caring directly for known or suspected COVID-19 patients or regularly interact with higher risk populations. This number comes out to an estimated 440,000 Virginians, which the first round of vaccine doses received by the Commonwealth will cover. The VDH is closely following the guidelines issued by the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on which individuals should be in each prioritization category. Virginia is still awaiting recommendations from Virginia Unified Command and the Virginia Disaster Medical Advisory Committee to make final recommendations on the next priority groups -- 1B and 1C. Those decisions are expected to come later this week. Phase 1B includes frontline essential workers and people ages 75 and older. Phase 1C includes people ages 16-74 with high-risk medical conditions, people aged 65-74, and other essential workers.
Phase 2 will cover the rest of the general public. It is important to note that neither vaccine has yet been approved for use in children under the age of 16. The vaccines will only be offered to children once the vaccine has been tested and approved for use in children.
Vaccine rollout as a whole has been described as a “fluid process” by the VDH, and we must remain flexible with some patience as we learn more and adjust our expectations due to real versus expected vaccine supply. While supplies are limited now, the VDH expects that once we have entered Phase 2, there will be ample supply of the vaccines, which will be readily available for distribution to the general public by late spring/early summer. At that time, Virginians can receive the COVID-19 vaccinations in a similar way to the annual flu vaccine at their local pharmacies and primary care providers.
As of Monday, just over 89,000 first doses of the vaccine have been administered statewide during the last two weeks, with a total of 451,000 doses distributed to local health departments.
Here in Fairfax County 5,000 doses of the vaccine arrived on Dec. 23 and were administered to EMS, the Community Services Board, federally qualified health centers, and Health Department staff. Last week, the Health Department started vaccinating providers not affiliated with hospitals with a focus on health care providers at dialysis centers, urgent care, and free clinics. Nobody has been fully vaccinated yet — completed their scheduled second dose of the vaccine — because 3-4 weeks must elapse between the first and second doses. Many of the first people to receive the vaccine will be eligible for their second dose in the upcoming week. The County Health Department will continue to vaccinate by appointment at the Fairfax County government center a large number of health care workers over the next several weeks to ensure that they all get equitable access to the limited quantities of the vaccine received each week.
Across the country, we have seen surges of COVID-19 spread in the last several weeks, leading to dwindling ICU bed capacity in many states, leaving many patients without access to care. Here in Virginia, we are currently at 82% ICU capacity, with 3,307 beds currently available. This is not the time to back down from following COVID-19 guidelines. While experts continue to learn about the protection the COVID-19 vaccine provides, and because the vaccine requires several weeks to take full effect, the CDC still recommends wearing masks, washing hands, and practicing physical distancing even after vaccination.
You can find more information at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/covid-19-vaccine/.