Hospitals Poised to Launch First COVID-19 Vaccines in Clinicians

Michele Cohen Marill

November 10, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

At first, when news spread of a 28-year-old doctor on the COVID-19 front lines in Brazil who died after receiving an experimental vaccine, doubts arose about the safety of one of the most promising coronavirus vaccine candidates. But then the story flipped. Although the vaccine maker wouldn't confirm it, the doctor appeared to have been in the control group and had received a dose of an established meningitis vaccine. The danger came from exposure to the coronavirus itself.

That tragedy underscores the ongoing risk of COVID-19 to healthcare workers, who have been designated by US advisory panels as part of phase 1A — the first to receive doses of any approved vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that 6% of adults hospitalized with COVID from March to May were healthcare workers. The report was based on surveillance data from 13 states. The average age of the patients was 49 years. The agency set a November 15 vaccination "readiness date" for jurisdictions, such as state health departments, even though a vaccine isn't likely to be authorized by then.

As hospitals scramble to prepare, their watchword is flexibility. They don't yet know how many initial doses they will get, of which vaccine, or in what time frame. They have a sophisticated infrastructure to deliver flu vaccines each fall, but that framework doesn't align with the likely scenarios of limited supply, additional reporting requirements, two-dose regimens, and differing storage needs.

Dr Anna Legreid Dopp

"Healthcare organizations have consistently risen to the challenge. I wholeheartedly believe in their potential to do this," Anna Legreid Dopp, PharmD, senior director of quality improvement and guidelines for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, tells Medscape Medical News.

HCWs Won't Face a Vaccine Mandate

Even after months of caring for COVID patients, most clinicians remain vulnerable to infection — at work and in their communities. That was what occupational medicine physician Kevin Smith, MD, realized when his health system, Toledo, Ohio–based ProMedica, offered antibody testing to all its 50,000 employees. About 2% of the 6933 tests given came back positive, he says.

Dr Kevin Smith

Yet many physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers share the public's skepticism about the safety and effectiveness of a vaccine that receives swift US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for emergency use. About half of nurses (47%) and almost 1 in 3 physicians (30%) say that they don't want to get the vaccine when it first becomes available or that they're unsure about vaccination, according to a Medscape survey.

Because vaccination of healthcare workers will set the stage for public acceptance of the vaccine, hospital epidemiologists are concerned. "We know that there will be some hesitancy in the healthcare workforce, just as there will be in the broader public," says Marci Drees, MD, chief infection prevention officer and hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare in Newark, Delaware, and liaison from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America to the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. "I do not think we can expect anyone to be vaccinated if we're not willing to vaccinate ourselves."

Healthcare workers are typically required to receive a range of vaccines, including measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and pertussis shots. Each year, close to half of US healthcare workers receive a flu vaccine under a workplace mandate. But COVID-19 will be different. The FDA requires anyone given products under an emergency use authorization (EUA) to receive information about risks and benefits and to have the option to decline. Hospitals instead will rely on education as they offer a novel vaccine (or more than one) that will have a minimum effectiveness of 50%.

ProMedica doesn't require employees to be vaccinated against flu, but employees who decline must get a note from a doctor indicating that they have talked about the risks and benefits of the vaccine. A similar approach may be used with a COVID-19 vaccine, in which employees may be required to learn about the vaccine before they decline, Smith says. "I do believe some people will say they don't want to get it," he added.

Like colleagues across the country, Smith is identifying healthcare workers who are involved in direct care of COVID-19 patients and are at highest risk for exposure. Even within the top tier, those performing the riskiest tasks, such as respiratory therapists who provide breathing treatments that spread aerosols and droplets, will be tagged as a priority group, he says. Healthcare workers who spend the most time in proximity to COVID patients, such as nurses in a COVID unit, also are likely to get the first doses, he says.

Swirl, Don't Shake, the Vaccine

Hospitals are adept at ramping up vaccination campaigns. For example, last year, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, Tennessee, vaccinated nearly 16,000 employees against influenza in their 1-day "Flulapalooza" event. The medical center even earned a Guinness world record in 2011 at the first Flulapalooza for giving the most vaccinations ever within 8 hours.

The 10th anniversary of the event was canceled this year because of COVID restrictions. Instead, nurses, pharmacists, and other clinicians pitched in to vaccinate their coworkers against influenza. Now, plans for COVID-19 vaccination move forward amid uncertainty.

Dr Lori Rolando

Instead of holding a mass event, "the delivery mechanisms will need to be more targeted and focused," says Lori Rolando, MD, MPH, director of the Vanderbilt Occupational Health Clinic. In the CDC's most recent version of its vaccination program "playbook," the agency recommends giving the vaccines in an area that allows people to remain 6 feet apart and for them to wait for 15 minutes after receiving the shot to make sure they don't faint, a potential risk common to almost all vaccines.

That's the easy part. Planning becomes more complex, given the uncertainty as to which vaccines will receive approval and which one a hospital will receive.

If the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine receives EUA in 2020, about 10 to 20 million doses could be available in November and 20 to 30 million doses in December. The ultracold containers used to ship the vaccines have to be replenished with dry ice within 24 hours of receipt and every 5 days thereafter. Hospitals will need temperature probes to monitor storage in the containers. The five-dose vials can be refrigerated before administering, but only for 5 days. The product must be diluted, and it then must be used within 6 hours.

The Moderna vaccine will be somewhat less plentiful at first. About 10 million doses are expected in November and 15 million doses by the end of December. The 10-dose vials are stored in a freezer. Once they are placed in a refrigerator to thaw, they have to be used within 7 days, and once they're removed from the refrigerator, they have to be used within 12 hours. The pharmacist or other vaccinator must swirl — but not shake! — the vial before delivering a dose, according to the CDC playbook.

As more information emerges about the vaccines, instructions may change, and Smith is steeled for shifting scenarios. "These are all draft plans. We're going to modify as we go along," he says.

The Pfizer vaccine requires a second dose at 21 days, and the Moderna vaccine targets the second dose at 28 days. In addition to using information systems to track vaccinations and any adverse effects, hospitals will give employees a card indicating what vaccine they received, the date it was administered, and the date on which they need to return. (At this point, the time frame for the second dose doesn't appear to be flexible.)

Regardless of the vaccine, one message stays the same: COVID precautions must continue. That means mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing — practices that also must be followed by healthcare workers who test positive for naturally acquired antibodies.

"I don't think anyone expects the COVID vaccine to be 100% effective at preventing COVID," says Rolando. "So all of the other tools in our toolbox are going to need to be continued to be used as well."

Michele Cohen Marill is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She has written for Wired, STAT, Health Affairs, and other publications. She can be reached at michele.marill@gmail.com.

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