Local health districts are preparing to receive and distribute vaccines for thousands of “critical infrastructure” employees as approval of two drugs is anticipated.
“For the last couple of months ... all the local health departments have been working with the state health department in anticipation of this,” said Maura Esposito, director of the Chesprocott Health District, which covers Cheshire, Prospect and Wolcott.
Under the directives the state and federal government are providing to health departments, medical workers in hospitals would be the first to receive vaccines under Phase 1A, Esposito said. That would be followed by Phase 1B, where local health districts would vaccinate their critical workforces, comprising all municipal workers, school staff, and first responders — including private EMS workers and volunteer firefighters.
Esposito estimates that would cover approximately 3,000 workers in the Chesprocott region, though the state is still considering expanding the designation to include cohorts such as healthcare workers not associated with a hospital. Phase 2 would see vaccines made available to the general public and available from most locations where the flu vaccine can now be administered, including health districts and doctors’ offices.
Even once vaccines begin to arrive at hospitals and health districts, the state and federal governments have cautioned not to expect large quantities, Esposito said.
“We have to remember this is happening in the whole United States ... we are probably not going to see 1,000 doses of vaccines. Each health department will probably only get 100 or 300 doses” in the first shipment, she said.
Though state funds allowed Chesprocott to purchase new coolers, refrigerators and freezers to store and transport the vaccines, Esposito said mass distribution will tax local districts already struggling to keep up with contact tracing workloads.
“I have people doing overtime ... 25, 30 hours a week. They don't get Saturday and Sunday off because they have to contact trace and when you get 200 cases in two days, calling 200 people and questioning them … (it’s) very challenging,” she said.
Calling the speed and effectiveness of the vaccines’ development a “moonshot,” Samuel Pope, director of medical ICU at Hartford Hospital, said the drugs will allow doctors to go beyond just treating the virus to beginning to prevent it and could eventually spell the end of the pandemic.
“I think this is ultimately what will get us back to what people want to do, which is to travel,” see family, shop and eat at restaurants, he said. “ … All these things are going to come back because of the hope that comes from these vaccines.”
Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical officer, said widespread trust in the vaccine is critical if enough people are to take it to allow the easing of restrictions on gatherings and to stem the tide of COVID patients being treated at hospitals. Most of the misconceptions about the vaccine seem to be regarding the speed of its development and testing, however he said safety trials appear to indicate no severe side effects with only around 2 percent of recipients experiencing mild symptoms like fever.
“Any vaccine when it comes out there's some trepidation about the side effects … the early data we know is there's no serious adverse effects,” he said.
Kumar believes that hospitals could begin receiving doses between Dec. 10 and 15, although enough doses to inoculate the general public might not available until June.
Shane Lockwood, director of the Southington-Plainville Health District, which also includes Middlefield, said many of the lessons public health experts learned from the H1N1 flu and Ebola are being employed both in designing priority groups and organizing vaccine distributions. The annual flu vaccine campaigns typically prioritize the elderly, who are most at risk, however H1N1 put pregnant women at higher rates of risk, while coronavirus has put front-line workers in peril.
“While we certainly weren't hoping for a pandemic, this is not new to us,” Lockwood said, noting that they’ve done drills and yearly flu shot campaigns.“ … We do mass vaccinations such as flu all the time …I think we have very sound infrastructure to be able to do this.”
Meriden Health and Human Services Director Lea Crown said the state notified the local health districts participating in Phase 1B that they shouldn’t anticipate receiving doses of the vaccine being developed by Pfizer, which requires storage at nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. While major hospitals have acquired the dry ice freezers required to maintain those temperatures, those are largely out of reach for municipal agencies.
“That was a relief, that we’re not going to have to go out to purchase ultra-cold (freezers),” she said.
Instead, she’s anticipating that they’ll be receiving vaccines being tested by other companies which can be stored in the refrigerators many districts already have on hand.
While her department is in the process of acquiring new technology to keep track of vaccine dosing, Crown said Meriden already has all the staff and infrastructure needed to conduct a wide scale distribution effort. She estimates approximately 14,000 critical employees in Meriden’s region would fall into Phase 1B.
“Local public health has been drilling mass dispensing of medication for years, so we have plans in place to make this work,” she said.
Since the vaccines appear poised to be released in the midst of winter, Crown said earlier plans to conduct mass prophylaxis at drive-throughs are no longer viable. Instead the district is exploring either securing locations with adequate space and ventilation to administer the vaccines indoors or to travel to firehouses, police departments and schools to give the shots there.
“It's going to be midwinter when we get the vaccines, (so) I do not plan a drive through,” she said. “You don't want a nurse with a cold shaky hand trying to give you a vaccine.”