As they manage the ongoing surge of COVID-19 patients, hospitals are preparing to receive and distribute vaccines that could ease and eventually bring an end to the pandemic.
The first vaccine could become available by mid December and — under the recommendation of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel — first go to health care workers and long-term care facilities.
Peter Hahn, president and CEO at Metro Health-University of Michigan Health, said the CDC panel’s recommendation “makes absolute sense” given the frontline role of health care workers in treating COVID-19 patients, and the vulnerability of residents at long-term care facilities.
“There’s going to be a limited supply early on. Health care workers are critical in terms of taking care of folks in the hospital and just making sure the health system can be there for our communities,” Hahn said. “That recommendation rings right to me.”
Metro Health has been working for weeks to prepare for the vaccines. The health system purchased ultra-cold freezers needed to store the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE at minus-70 degrees Celsius. In the U.S, Pfizer will produce its vaccine at its Portage facility in Southwest Michigan.
“Once we get the vaccine shipments, we’re ready to go,” Hahn said.
As of Dec. 1, 48 hospitals and 12 local health departments across Michigan had ultra-cold freezers with capabilities to receive the Pfizer vaccine, Michigan Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said during a recent press conference. More than 100 hospitals and local health departments across the state have the ability to store and distribute a vaccine Moderna Inc. developed, Khaldun said.
After initial limited availability, vaccines become more widely available, “hopefully by January,” Khaldun said.
“Depending on supply of the vaccine, we’ll continue to expand to other types of critical health care workers,” other groups such as educators, and “eventually to the general public,” Khaldun added. “We hope to be able to have the vaccine available to the general public by late spring.”
Beginning of the end?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week is scheduled to review the emergency use application for Pfizer’s vaccine. The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will review an emergency application from Moderna on Dec. 17.
If the FDA grants emergency approval, distribution of the vaccines could begin days afterward, bringing what health care providers hope is the beginning of the end to the pandemic that broke out in the U.S. in March, has killed more than 270,000 people nationwide, hammered the economy, and in the recent surge pushed some hospitals to capacity and stretched staff thin.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect people worldwide, having a safe and effective vaccine is critical to stopping the spread of coronavirus and keeping people healthy,” Ascension Michigan said in a statement.
Ascension Michigan owns Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo and community hospitals in Allegan, Dowagiac and Plainwell.
Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health said in a statement to MiBiz that it “eagerly awaits a decision from the FDA on emergency use authorization for the first COVID-19 vaccine.”
“We’ve had a team working for months to ensure we have the capabilities to receive, store, distribute and administer vaccines when they become available. We have several freezers in place throughout our health system to accommodate the storage needs associated with the vaccine,” Spectrum Health said, adding that it’s working with state and local health departments “to ensure a coordinated approach.”
Part of hospitals’ preparation is ensuring that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and encouraging people to get vaccinated.
A recent poll of older adults by the University of Michigan “suggests an uphill climb lies ahead to reach that goal.” Just 58 percent of adults between 50 to 80 years old in the university’s National Poll on Healthy Aging said they were somewhat or very likely to get vaccinated.
Women and people of color in that age group were less likely to get vaccinated, the survey found.
Metro Health “will do everything we can to support getting the community vaccinated,” Hahn said. “We’re going to implore people to do it. This has been a historic challenge. Science has provided an answer, so we just need to make sure that folks trust it and really take it to heart.”
The pharmaceutical companies have developed their vaccines at unprecedented speed and in a matter of just months.
Hospitals across the state are collaborating on messaging that the vaccines are safe and effective, said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president of public affairs and communications at the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.
The reduced time of an otherwise lengthy development process comes from removing “red tape that normally exists when a vaccine is developed,” as well as securing funding and administrative requirements, Sudderth said.
“The speed at which these vaccines have been developed should not be looked at as a negative when people are considering whether it’s safe and effective,” she said. “We want people to know that the vaccine process underwent very strict scrutiny and has been tested as well as it could have been, and that we’re feeling confident that this is going to help us get back to normal.
“We’re cautiously optimistic this could be the start of a really serious improvement in Michigan if people take the vaccine and we can start to make some headway.”
Despite the promise of the vaccines to bring an end to the global pandemic, health care leaders urge people to remain vigilant and comply with public health measures: wearing face masks, social distancing and washing their hands.
“It’s not a silver bullet and we’re still going to need people to take the preventative measures we know have worked for months. Because not everybody’s going to get the vaccine at the same time, there’s going to be a tail on this before we have strong immunity throughout the state and throughout the country,” Sudderth said. “There is some light, but the tunnel is still pretty long.”
Vaccine distribution also comes with significant logistical challenges, starting with the need for ultra-cold storage of the Pfizer vaccine.
The Moderna vaccine needs storage at minus-10 to minus-20 degrees Celsius, “which is what most medical-grade freezers can generate,” said Pete Haverkamp, director of pharmacy services at Metro Health.
“The Pfizer one’s definitely the most challenging because of the very limited stability,” Haverkamp said. “We’ll be happy when we have some other vaccines like the Moderna one that will give us some more flexibility.”