With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expected to approve the first of the COVID-19 vaccines perhaps as early as this weekend, Arkansas could receive its first shipment of 25,000 vaccines next week. Fort Smith hospitals are ready and waiting for their allotments.
An advisory panel convened Thursday (Dec. 10) to decide whether to recommend that the Food and Drug Administration approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. If it is approved, the vaccine will immediately be shipped to each state. Arkansas will receive 25,000 vaccines, said Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood. Johnson is also the medical director for Fort Smith EMS and Southwest EMS and an emergency room physician.
The vaccine requires two doses, the second 21 days after the first, but Arkansas will receive a second batch of 25,000 at the appropriate time for those second doses. That means all 25,000 doses of the vaccines will go to front-line hospital workers determined most in need of being inoculated against the virus, Johnson said.
The Fort Smith area continues to have one of the highest new case rates of the virus and Healthcare workers in at least one Fort Smith hospital have experienced a 3% mortality rate from the virus. At Baptist Health-Fort Smith, 103 healthcare workers have tested positive for the virus, said Dr. Bryan Clardy, a physician with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Fort Smith, vice-chief of staff for Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Sebastian County Medical Officer. Of those 103, three have died, he said, meaning it will be important for healthcare workers to get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available.
The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -70 degrees, a temperature many hospitals have not been equipped for in the past. Though some vaccines, like the chicken pox and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine have to be stored at -20 degrees, storing at -70 degrees presents some challenges, Johnson said. Baptist has purchased two of the ultracold freezers for the Pfizer vaccine. Not only do they have the freezers, they are plugged in, working and ready for the vaccine, Clardy said.
Mercy Fort Smith also is ready to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to prioritized groups in accordance with federal and state directives as soon as supplies become available, said Mardi Taylor, senior media relations and communications specialist with Mercy Fort Smith.
“Both Mercy Hospital Fort Smith and Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas have ultracold freezers for the Pfizer vaccine, and co-workers have been trained in its handling and storage,” Taylor said.
The first administration of the vaccine – group 1A – will be hospital workers, which includes not only physicians, nurses and nursing assistants, but janitors and technicians, “anyone who could potentially be in contact with COVID patients on a daily basis,” Johnson said.
Though there is not a specific plan for making certain those employees are vaccinated in a particular order, Mercy and Baptist are prepared to take care of their employees.
“Mercy co-workers are strongly encouraged to get a vaccination for COVID-19 as soon as it is available to them based on prioritization protocols. Because the vaccine won’t be available to everyone immediately, we continue to emphasize the importance of taking simple steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus until the public health crisis is declared over. Those include good hand hygiene, wearing a face covering in public, maintaining social distance and avoiding crowds,” Taylor said.
A vaccine by Moderna is expected to receive FDA approval soon after the Pfizer vaccine. Johnson said he expects that vaccine will be available in the state by Christmas week. That vaccine should got to nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the state for employees and residents. That vaccine requires a second dose 28 days after the initial vaccination, Johnson said.
“The rest depends on how quickly the companies like Pfizer, can ramp up production of the vaccine. I know it has been prioritized,” he said.
The next group to get the vaccine, or group 1B, will be people at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness due to underlying medical conditions. Phase 2 is expected to go to essential and critical industries, including those working in schools, people 65 years and older and those working or living in places of large congregations, like prisons, Clardy said.
“This also includes our truckers and those at our grocery stores, who essentially keep our economy going in this area,” he said.
Phase 3 is young adults, children and workers essential to the functioning of society that were not included in an earlier phase. Phase 4 is for basically all others residing in the United States who have not received the vaccine.
Most experts say the vaccine will be available for all in the general public by June. Johnson said with three other companies with vaccines in stage three testing and expected to go before the FDA soon for emergency approval, the timeline could be pushed forward.
“If those are also released and the companies ramp up production, we could see the vaccine available for the general public maybe in April,” Johnson said.
A key thing to note is that the vaccine has a 95% efficacy rate and the side-effects reported have been minimal, Clardy said. Clardy said he has no qualms about getting the vaccine or encouraging everyone to do so. He says he will lobby to be at the front of the line when it is available.
“Sure you might feel a little crummy afterwards, maybe very tired the next day. That’s to be expected with any vaccine,” he said. “In medicine, we are always dealing with risk/benefit analysis. There will probably be someone out there who has a terrible adverse reaction to the vaccine, but the greater benefit it will have for all of society will outweigh that tremendously.”
Until the vaccine is available, medical officials continue to encourage practice safe policies.
“In order to help provide the best and safest care possible to the community, we need the community to help us by doing their part to reduce their risk during the pandemic,” said Stephanie Whitaker, vice president of patient care and chief nursing executive for Baptist Health Fort Smith and Van Buren. “I can’t stress enough how important it is for community members to show their support for our healthcare and other essential workers. Something as simple as following the recommended guidelines – the 3 W’s – wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance – is a great way to show that you’re committed to stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives.”