Some Boone County residents are likely to receive COVID-19 vaccines soon, but federal, state and county health officials are coordinating a historic vaccination effort that is still under way, leaving some questions unanswered.
“A lot of it is we won’t know until we get there,” Boone County Health Dept. Public Health Educator Claire Haughton said. “At this point, the state of Indiana isn’t sure how much vaccine we’re going to get, and how much vaccine we get is really going to affect quite a lot of different things.”
As the pandemic stretches into its ninth month, a trio of vaccines offer a glimmer of hope for an eventual end, although when that could happen is uncertain.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was set to review a vaccine produced by Pfizer Inc., in partnership with BioNTech, during a Dec. 10 meeting. The vaccine received a favorable review from an independent panel advising the FDA on Dec. 8, signaling it would likely grant the authorization. Moderna, which produced another COVID-19 vaccine, announced it had also applied for emergency-use authorization for its vaccine, which was scheduled for Dec. 17. AstraZeneca, which produced a third vaccine, said it also would seek emergency-use authorization from the FDA.
If Pfizer’s vaccine is authorized, shipments in the United States could be sent out soon thereafter. Great Britain has already approved Pfizer’s vaccine, clearing the way for its first residents to be vaccinated Dec. 8.
When a vaccine is granted emergency-use authorization in the U.S., states will receive shipments, and each will be responsible for coordinating distribution to residents. Indiana health officials said the state’s health department would review the vaccine before allowing it to be given to Hoosiers.
If and when the state’s health department approves a vaccine, shipments will be sent to five sectors of the state by region: central, northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest. Boone County, which is in the same sector as Marion County, expects to receive shipments within a few days after approval.
When shipments arrive in Boone County, they will be stored at Witham Health Services. The hospital is equipped with the ultra-cool storage needed to store the Pfizer vaccine, according to county health officials. The hospital will head the effort to immunize front-line health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities during Phase 1a of immunizations. CVS and Walgreens pharmacies also will help with the vaccinations, Haughton said.
Witham will vaccinate eligible residents at the Boone County 4-H Fairgrounds during Phase 1a. After that, the county will prepare for Phase 1b, where critical infrastructure workforces are expected to be vaccinated. A site for Phase 1b hasn’t been determined. The general public will receive vaccinations during a later phase.
For the moment, it is unknown how many vaccines the state will receive. Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said Indiana, like all states, would receive vaccines relative to its population. Other factors, like the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths will not be considered when distributing vaccines, she said.
BCHD Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tom Ryan said the county is ready to receive vaccines and begin immunizing residents almost immediately. He estimated Phase 1a to last into January, with Phase 1b starting in mid-February, at the earliest. He said there is no way to project when the public will be able to receive vaccines. However, he said the health department would need additional help vaccinating what is expected to be many more residents in Phase 1b and beyond. County officials and the health department are exploring options, such as hiring part-time employees or seeking volunteers.
Vaccines will be free for all county residents, Haughton said, thanks to federal action. Residents might be asked to provide health insurance information, but the vaccine will be free to those who don’t have insurance.
In addition to vaccinating Boone County residents, Witham has been tasked with vaccinating applicable groups in Montgomery and Clinton counties in Phase 1a. Boone County Health Officer Dr. Herschell Servies said those scheduled to receive the vaccine during the first phase would likely have to come to Witham due to the hospital’s already short staff.
“Honestly, we don’t have the staff to go there,” Servies said during a Dec. 7 county commissioners meeting.
About the two earliest vaccines
Pfizer’s vaccine is administered in two shots 21 days apart in people 16 and older. Moderna’s vaccine will be administered in two doses 28 days apart.
Pfizer’s vaccine’s possible side effects closely mirror those from other vaccines. Muscle soreness, a fever, chills, a headache, fatigue are all side effects reported after participants received COVID-19 vaccines, but symptoms mostly disappeared within 24 hours.
“I think a lot of folks have been concerned about side effects, and some side effects have been noted,” Haughton said. “But, honestly, research that I’ve been seeing shows the vaccine is pretty well tolerated.”
Pfizer, based on projections in a late November press release, is expected to produce up to 50 million doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.
Moderna, in a press release, announced it expects to have 20 million doses available in the U.S. by the end of the year. The data analysis indicates a vaccine efficacy of 94.1 percent. The company expects to have between 100 million and 125 million doses available globally in the first quarter of 2021, with 85 to 100 million available in the U.S.
Health officials: Vaccines are the only way
Regardless of timing, Boone County Health Dept. Public Health Educator Claire Haughton said inoculating the country’s population is the only way to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
Haughton said nations like Sweden, which initially aimed for herd immunity by not imposing strict lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, is not a viable option without suffering many “needless deaths.”
Herd immunity is achieved when roughly 70 percent of a population contracts a virus.
“We have already learned people can get COVID multiple times, so we need the vaccine in order to achieve herd immunity, and we need the majority of the population to receive that vaccine if we want to start seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” Haughton said.