Essentia Health and St. Luke's hospital in Duluth are preparing to administer the first round of coronavirus vaccines to health care workers most at risk of being exposed to the virus as soon as mid-December.

"This is the best Christmas present I can ask for," Dr. Andrew Thompson, St. Luke's infectious disease specialist, said. "This is not going to change things over night. What we're on is a massive ocean liner, Great Lakes ship. You can't just turn it around. It has so much momentum. But yes, this gives me great hope."

A panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted on Tuesday to recommend that residents of long-term care facilities and health care workers should be the first to receive the vaccine.

And on Dec. 10, a Food and Drug Administration panel is scheduled to meet to decide whether to authorize emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine. On Tuesday, Britain became the first country to approve use of the vaccine. Should the U.S. panel approve its use, distribution could begin the following day. In that case, the vaccine could be administered to health care workers first in line as early as the week of Dec. 14.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson

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Roseann Hines, pharmacy operations manager for Essentia Health's Office of Medication Use Management, called it the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

"It takes many in our community to get the vaccine and have that thing called 'herd immunity' to really protect the people who can't get the vaccine," Hines said.

The health care workers considered most at risk of being exposed include, but are not limited to, nurses, nurse assistants, practitioners, respiratory therapists, physical therapists and their assistants as well as the employees who clean up after patients.

While the health care systems don't yet know the exact number of employees who will be eligible for the first round of vaccines, Hines estimated it's a little less than half of the 14,000 employed across the Essentia Health system in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Hines said individual departments across all the sites will work with employees to determine when to receive the vaccine. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require a second dose at 21 and 28 days, respectively. An FDA panel will review the Moderna vaccine Dec. 17.

"It's important they should not mix the two manufacturers. You should complete a series of one manufacturer," Hines said, adding that people can receive the two doses at different locations.

As the number of people who can receive the vaccine expands, Hines said, Essentia's goal is to support public access and is in the process of developing the infrastructure to do so, similar to how the health care system plans for distributing flu vaccines.

"This is not going to change things over night. What we're on is a massive ocean liner, Great Lakes ship. You can't just turn it around. It has so much momentum."

— Dr. Andrew Thompson, infectious disease specialist, St. Luke's

Thompson said St. Luke's will work hard to vaccinate patients when that time comes and will look to the state's health department to determine how much it can assist in further distribution. St. Luke's recently installed an ultra-cold freezer at the Duluth hospital that can store thousands of vaccines. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored 94 degrees below zero, while the Moderna vaccine needs to be stored at 4 degrees below zero.

Health care systems are working with the CDC, the Minnesota Department of Health and state coalitions to determine how to proceed with the administration of the vaccine to employees and the greater public.

Noting the questions people have surrounding the safety of vaccines produced in less than a year — a process that often takes several years — Thompson pointed to the data to say that the vaccines are "overwhelmingly safe," and will save countless lives.

"They have over 75,000 people in these trials of these current vaccines," Thompson said. "They have closely monitored for any side effects, adverse events and the data that's available so far looks like they're very safe and very effective."

Although the vaccine was developed quickly, safety was not compromised, Hines said.

"You have the greatest minds of the world working on this," Hines said. "The reason they've gone so fast is because of that focus and additional funding. It isn't that steps were skipped in the developmental or approval processes."

She added that the FDA's Dec. 10 meeting on the Pfizer vaccine will be live-streamed — a level of transparency that doesn't typically occur.

Because the vaccines have not yet been studied in children, they won't be considered for the vaccine until that happens, Thompson said. The vaccine hasn't been studied on other groups of people. When the time comes, individuals who are unsure if they should receive the vaccine should check with their providers.

"We are all awaiting more data so we can give good advice," Thompson said. "It should be coming very soon."