Although people who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies to protect them from reinfection for a least three months, scientists and the medical community are hopeful that the vaccine will help our bodies develop a more significant immune response that will protect us for a longer period of time.
Dr. Timothy Friel, an infection specialist and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Lehigh Valley Health Network, said the timeline for distribution is still being worked out, but people who want the vaccine can certainly let their doctors know they want to get it.
“It really, really is an exciting time,” he said.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both mRNA-based vaccines and require two shots, 21 days apart. They also have to be stored at very cold temperatures.
Pfizer had more than 40,000 people volunteer for the clinical trials, and almost 80 staff members from LVHN volunteered, Friel said.
“The early look at this data is very encouraging. The effectiveness is close to 95%. That is incredible for all the vaccines that we look at,” he said. “The safety data today, also very, very encouraging.”
Friel said most reactions to the vaccine include injection site redness, tenderness, and a little swelling at the site. Some people have experienced headache, muscle ache, joint ache or fatigue.
Some have experienced a reaction after the second dose, but the symptoms tend to resolve within 24 hours.
“It’s not the majority, but a sizable enough number,” he said.
People should be mindful of the reactions, but not fearful if they experience it.
“It is a marker of the stimulation of the immune system or the immune response. And that’s really what we are trying to achieve with this vaccination,” he said.
People with serious allergies, such as those who carry an epipen, or have an allergic reaction to medications, should talk to their doctor before getting the vaccine.
He thinks they will be able to get it, but maybe in a setting where they can be monitored and symptoms treated quickly.
“Always share that information with your health care provider, so you can make the best decisions moving forward,” he said.
Friel emphasized that getting an upset stomach after taking a medication, such as with an antibiotic, is not an allergic reaction.
Who gets it first
The first people to be offered the vaccine are health care workers who are on the front line or those who are at high risk, and people who live in or work in long-term care facilities. After that, the prioritization will move to other groups, in particular those who are at a higher risk of complications due to COVID-19 and are more likely to end up in the hospital.
LVHN is hoping to eventually be able to distribute the vaccine to large groups of people similar to how it does the flu vaccine.
Friel said they have been working on plans, which might involve setting up tents. They have to make sure the vaccine is kept cold, stored properly, thawed properly and administered in the period of time it will remain active.
“Once you constitute the vaccine after thawing it, you have five hours, so you don’t want to make too much and waste it,” he said.
Education is key
Educating people about the vaccine is also very important in order to build the public’s trust and confidence, he said.
“Ultimately for us to gain the upper hand in this pandemic, we need to as a community, as a society, develop a level of immunity that’s going to protect us and protect those most vulnerable,” Friel said. “To do that, we’re not going to get there by waiting for enough individuals to get sick. We’re really far away from that happening.
“It’s takes about 70% of us to develop some protection, and with how bad this infection has been and the consequences that we are seeing in our health system and with the number of people who have died, we think that a large-scale vaccination strategy is the most effective and the smartest way to do so to get us to that point.”
In the meantime, Friel stressed the importance of continuing to wear a mask in public places, wash hands regularly, don’t touch the face, and socially distance by at least 6 feet.
“We are all in this together,” he said. “We are at a point right now where vaccine is coming very soon. We can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel for this. These next few months for this are going to be really, really tricky just given how much virus is circulating in our community, and how many people are currently in our hospitals receiving care.
“We do not want to overwhelm the system. We want to buy everyone time, so that there is enough vaccine to go around. That way, we can achieve levels of immunity that will protect us and make this pandemic fade away. We will all be happy when we get there, but it will happen more effectively and more efficiently if we all band together and really do our part.”
Lauren Grantz, director of Pharmacy Operations for Lehigh Valley Health Network Pharmacy Services, displays one of the special packets prepared by LVHN including all the items that will be used to distribute each dose of COVID-19 vaccine to health network employees. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Lauren Grantz, director of Pharmacy Operations for LVHN Pharmacy Services, opens one of the special freezers where Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine will be stored at Lehigh Valley Health Network. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO