Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is coming not a moment too soon, according to Dr. Miriam Alexander, the medical director for employee health and wellness at LifeBridge Health, which includes Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital. The hospital “has seen an increase in patients, and we’ve seen an increase in how sick people are over the last weeks,” which she categorized as “very concerning.”
“Our staff are doing wonderfully, but they’re very tired,” Alexander continued. “There’s a tremendous amount of fatigue. People have been working very hard for a long time.” She said a significant number of the patients who have come in have not survived, which weighs heavily on the medical staff.
The first vaccine delivery of about 3,000 doses came on Dec. 17, a LifeBridge representative said via email. Twenty-four front-line workers were vaccinated that day.
Alexander said that while they were hoping to receive subsequent vaccine deliveries on a weekly basis, they were not certain if that would materialize. She expressed cautious optimism that between the middle to the end of January, all of their health care workers who wanted vaccinations would be able to receive them.
Vaccinations will be organized into several phases, she said.
In phase one, vaccines will be administered to health care providers and elderly residents (80 years of age and above) of long-term care facilities. Particular emphasis will be given to vaccinating those health care workers with an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, such as those who care for COVID-positive patients.
Phase two will include those with chronic health problems, Alexander said, such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes. Finally, phase three will allow the general population access to the vaccine. She expressed hope that by late summer, the vaccine could be available to every American who wanted it.
According to Alexander, the nation’s hospitals are working to administer the vaccines in mass clinics set up in areas that are as convenient to as many employees as possible, and where they might social distance while waiting. She specified that Sinai Hospital’s mass clinic was being set up in its large central atrium.
Part of the challenge that comes with these vaccines is simply storing them, as they need to be kept at exceedingly cold temperatures, with some reports stating they need to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius. To accomplish this, Alexander said LifeBridge had purchased special freezers to accommodate the Pfizer vaccine, with other freezers on order for the Moderna vaccine. Alexander expressed confidence that LifeBridge has all the freezers they will need to accommodate the doses they receive to vaccinate their staff and patients.
Alexander explained that, to receive full immunity from the Pfizer vaccine, a person needs to receive two separate doses, with the two injections spaced three or four weeks apart. Alexander stated that receiving two doses is a fairly common practice when it comes to vaccination, with the initial dose meant to prime the immune system and start the process of “developing the memory it’s going to need,” while the second dose works to “solidify the memory.” Other vaccines that utilize this two-dose approach, Alexander said, include those for polio, shingles, chicken pox and hepatitis A and B.
Alexander acknowledged that it can be a challenge to get people to return for a second dose of a vaccine within the correct time frame. To help with this, she explained that employees were having their second doses scheduled at the time they received their initial doses, and afterward receiving reminder cards, emails or texts to help ensure they remember their subsequent appointments.
Among this initial group of health care workers to receive the vaccine will be Dr. Scott Krugman, the vice chair of Sinai Hospital’s department of pediatrics. Speaking with the JT on Dec. 16, Krugman, a resident of Lutherville, stated that he was scheduled to receive his first injection Dec. 21.
“I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to get it early on, so that I’m at less risk of contracting it from either the community or a patient,” Krugman said, calling it a first step toward ending the pandemic.
Krugman expected that, even after receiving the full two doses of the vaccine, his normal behavior would not fundamentally change, and that he would continue to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Krugman stated that “it’s not entirely clear that having the vaccine will 100% prevent you from passing it along, even if you get it.”
To those eager to get the vaccine, Krugman counseled patience, saying that hospitals were working to ensure that those most at risk receive it first.
“When your time comes, take advantage of it,” Krugman said, “but until then, just keep following the guidelines. … We’re not out of the woods yet.”