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Vaccine Arrivals Are Expected To Be A Turning Point In COVID-19 Battle

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Michael Dowling is head of one of New York's largest hospital systems and he had something to tell the world about today - that for the first time in the United States, someone received a coronavirus vaccine, a registered nurse in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL DOWLING: This is a special moment, a special day. This is what everybody has been waiting for, to be able to give the vaccine and this is the beginning of the end of the COVID issue.

INSKEEP: The nurse received the Pfizer vaccination, which is also going to health care workers across the country today. NPR's Allison Aubrey is here, and, Allison, now that we have the first vaccines in New York today, how many places across the country is this vaccine going?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: You know, there are about 145 sites expecting to receive their vaccine shipment today, another 425 sites tomorrow. I've spoken to physicians in charge of coordinating distribution at several large hospital systems around the country. Here's Mark Newman of the University of Kentucky health care system. They have thousands of employees.

MARK NEWMAN: We have our plan in place, and we're ready and ahead of time. We got additional minus-80 freezers. So we could - we can handle up to 100,000 doses of the Pfizer product at the minus 80. So we expect in the next few days to be able to start vaccinating our employees.

AUBREY: And this is really what I'm hearing from other large hospital systems as well. And, Steve, Newman says about 50% of employees there say they absolutely want the vaccine as soon as possible. Another 30% want a little bit more information, a little more data, but are interested as well.

INSKEEP: Reference there to the skepticism in some of the public, which public health officials are trying to reassure people about by taking the vaccine in public themselves, for example. In any case, though, we know there are not going to be enough doses for everyone at the very beginning. So how do officials decide who goes first?

AUBREY: Well, at Johns Hopkins, where they have multiple hospitals and tens of thousands of employees, they expect to receive in their first shipment today about 975 doses. Dr. Gabe Kelen is directing the rollout there with a team of people. He told me in addition to nurses and doctors, there are so many other high-priority workers who interact directly with patients.

GABE KELEN: There are pharmacists and social workers. There are people who bring food to patients.

AUBREY: You know, people who clean rooms, respiratory therapists. I mean, the list goes on. And since there is not enough for everyone to start, they've created tiers. Within the tiers, they're randomizing the process, so it's basically a lottery system to determine who goes first. And as to all the logistics involved here, Steve, he says it's kind of like being an orchestra conductor right now.

KELEN: There are so many moving parts to getting this right. The Pfizer version is very tricky to handle - has to be kept at minus 70, can't be outside of minus 70 very long. And once you reconstitute the vaccine, you have about five days to use it.

AUBREY: So each of their hospitals will have one central place for people to go at an appointed time. They are not requiring or mandating that their employees get one right now, but they expect there will be demand.

INSKEEP: And is it going to be possible to scale up over time to meet that demand?

AUBREY: Yes, absolutely. The head of Operation Warp Speed estimates that the U.S. may be able to vaccinate up to 100 million people by the end of the first quarter of 2021 - so end of March. It seems the supply of vaccines will ramp up quickly. The federal government has purchased about 100 million more doses of the Moderna vaccine. Now, Moderna has already applied for emergency use authorization. And an advisory committee meeting is set for later this week, so it could be approved very soon.

INSKEEP: Allison, can I circle back to the skepticism for a moment? You mentioned that hospital where about half the people who work in a hospital are ready to take this vaccine; most of the rest are about ready, but they want a little more information. What is being done to educate or inform people about the choice they're making here?

AUBREY: Well, you know, there is some evidence that support for vaccination is growing. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 61% of people said they will get vaccinated when it's available. That's up from 49% in September. I spoke to Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath about this. She's an immunologist. She's the CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. She says people need information from trusted sources in their communities. They need to be reassured about just how safe and effective the vaccine has been shown to be in clinical trials.

MICHELLE MCMURRY-HEATH: You know, at this point, tens of thousands of people have received both the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. So Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, elderly - they're all seeming to respond very well to the vaccine, and it's showing a very, very low rate of any adverse event.

AUBREY: And she says the more people that get vaccinated, the closer we can get, Steve, to putting this pandemic behind us because what's happening right now is just not sustainable.

INSKEEP: Glad you mentioned that part.

AUBREY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Because we're at a moment today where we're hitting, at some point, 300,000 dead in the pandemic and thousands more now every day. What are you hearing from frontline health workers?

AUBREY: You know, what I'm hearing is that it's tough, and it's getting tougher. Resources are stretched very thin. The states with the most counties that have hospitals that are at least 90% occupied include Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota, Oklahoma. I spoke to Dr. Ashley Montgomery-Yates of the University of Kentucky, where they've been slammed with COVID patients transferred in from small rural facilities. And if it keeps going like this, Steve, there will come a point where they would have to limit care.

ASHLEY MONTGOMERY-YATES: We get to the point where we say, OK, we can't take any more patients without shutting down operating rooms, which means if you need a bypass surgery or if you have a new cancer that needs to come out, we can't do it because we don't have the resources.

AUBREY: So they just have to be very judicious about every bed and every hospital resource. At the moment, they're trying to balance all the needs of COVID patients and other patients.

INSKEEP: So I'm just thinking ahead here. This is, of course, a disease where people who get infected today might be sick a week from now. People sick today might be in the hospital two weeks from now.

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: What's ahead?

AUBREY: You know, the upward trend in cases and hospitalizations that began before Thanksgiving is only getting worse. I spoke to Angela Rasmussen about this. She's a virologist at Georgetown University.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Even before the Thanksgiving holiday, we were on a steep upward trajectory in terms of the number of new cases and in terms of the number of new deaths. And I realize that everybody has pandemic fatigue. We're tired of living like this. But I would also remind people that we are at basically a 9/11 every day in terms of the number of people that we're losing, and that number is going up.

AUBREY: So when the U.S. hits 3,000 deaths in one day, that's about two people per minute, Steve, dying from COVID-19. So, you know, the vaccine news is wonderful. We need this news. But right now we need to stay vigilant with masking and social distancing and everything you've heard a million times already. It's just critical right now.

INSKEEP: Really dramatic and tragic and poignant and just a moving day. Allison, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "1000 ARMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.