Call to Arms: Vaccinating the Health Workforce of 21 Million Strong

Michele Cohen Marill

December 22, 2020

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

As the first American healthcare workers rolled up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccine, the images were instantly frozen in history, marking the triumph of scientific know-how and ingenuity. Cameras captured the first trucks pulling out of a warehouse in Portage, Michigan, to the applause of workers and area residents. A day later, Boston Medical Center employees — some dressed in scrubs and wearing masks, face shields, and protective gowns — literally danced on the sidewalk when doses arrived. Some have photographed themselves getting the vaccine and posted it on social media, tagging it #MyCOVIDVax.

But the real story of the debut of COVID-19 vaccination is more methodical than monumental, a celebration of teamwork rather than of conquest. As hospitals waited for their first allotment, they reviewed their carefully drafted plans. They relied on each other, reaching across the usual divisions of competition and working collaboratively to share the limited supply. Their priority lists for the first vaccinations included environmental services workers who clean patient rooms and the critical care physicians who work to save lives.

"Healthcare workers have pulled together throughout this pandemic," said Melanie Swift, MD, cochair of the COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation and Distribution Work Group at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "We've gone through the darkest of years relying so heavily on each other," she said. "Now we're pulling together to get out of it."

Still, a rollout of this magnitude has hitches. Stanford issued an apology Friday after its medical residents protested a vaccine distribution plan that left out nearly all of its residents and fellows, many of whom regularly treat patients with COVID-19.

There have already been more than 287,000 COVID cases and 953 deaths among healthcare workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In its guidance, the agency pointed out that the "continued protection of them at work, at home, and in the community remains a national priority." That means vaccinating a workforce of about 21 million people, often the largest group of employees in a community.

"It collectively takes all of us to vaccinate our teams to maintain that stability in our healthcare infrastructure across the metro Atlanta area," Christy Norman, PharmD, vice president of pharmacy services at Emory Healthcare, told reporters in a briefing as the health system awaited its first delivery.

Don't Waste a Dose

One overriding imperative prevails: Hospitals don't want to waste any doses. The storage requirements of the Pfizer vaccine make that tricky.

Once vials are removed from the pizza-box-shaped containers in ultracold storage and placed in a refrigerator, they must be used within 5 days. Thawed five-dose vials must be brought to room temperature before they are diluted, and they can remain at room temperature for no more than 2 hours. Once they are diluted with 1.8 mL of a 0.9% sodium chloride injection, the vials must be used within 6 hours.

COVID-19 precautions require employees to stay physically distant while they wait their turn for vaccination, which means the process can't mirror typical large-scale flu immunization programs.

To prioritize groups, the vaccination planners at Mayo conducted a thorough risk stratification, considering each employee's duties. Do they work in a dedicated COVID-19 unit? Do they handle lab tests or collect swabs? Do they work in the ICU or emergency department?

"We have applied some principles to make sure that as we roll it out, we prioritize people who are at greatest risk of ongoing exposure and who are really critical to maintaining the COVID response and other essential health services," said Swift, who is associate medical director of Mayo's occupational health service.

Mayo employees who are eligible for the first doses can sign up for appointments through the medical record system. If it seems likely that some doses will be left over at the end of the vaccination period — perhaps because of missed appointments — supervisors in high-risk areas can refer other healthcare workers. Mayo gave its first vaccines on Friday, but the vaccination program began in earnest this week. With the pleasant surprise that each five-dose vial actually provides six doses, 474 vials will allow for the vaccination of 2844 employees in the top-priority group. "It's going to expand each week or few days as we get more and more vaccine," Swift said.

Sharing Vials With Small Rural Hospitals

Minnesota is using a hub-and-spoke system to give small rural hospitals access to the Pfizer vaccine, even though they lack ultracold storage and can't use a minimum order of 975 doses. Large hospitals, acting as hubs, are sharing their orders. (The minimum order for Moderna is 100 doses.)

In south-central Minnesota, for example, two hub hospitals each have six spoke hospitals. Five of the 14 hospitals are independent, and the rest are part of large hospital systems, but affiliation doesn't matter, said Eric Weller, regional healthcare preparedness coordinator for the South Central Healthcare Coalition. "We are all working together. It doesn't matter what system you're from," he said. "We're working for the good of the community."

Each hospital designed a process to provide vaccine education, prioritize groups, allocate appointments, register people for vaccination, obtain signed consent forms, administer vaccines in a COVID-safe way, and provide follow-up appointments for the second dose. "We're using some of the lessons we learned during H1N1," said Weller, referring to immunization during the 2009 influenza pandemic. "The difference is that during H1N1, you could have lines of people."

Coordinating the appointments will be more important than ever. "One of the vaccination strategies is to get people in groups of five, so you use one vial on those five people and don't waste it," Weller said.

Logistics are somewhat different for the Moderna vaccine, which will come in 10-dose vials that can be refrigerated for up to 30 days.

Both vaccines may produce mild flulike symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, or muscle pain, particularly after the second dose. That's a sign that the immune system is reacting to the vaccine, but it's also another consideration in the vaccination plans, because healthcare workers might take a day or two off work. "We're not going to vaccinate a whole department at one time. It will be staggered," said Kevin Smith, MD, medical director of the occupational medicine program at ProMedica, a healthcare system based in Toledo, Ohio.

Smith said he plans to encourage employees to use V-Safe, an app created by the CDC to track adverse effects in people who receive the vaccine. He pointed out that a day or two of achiness will be better than coping with the symptoms of COVID-19. Some employees who recovered from the infection still feel fatigued or haven't regained their sense of taste and smell. "We are still monitoring quite a few employees to make sure they get back to 100%," he said.

Hope for Ending the Pandemic

Public health officials have worried about vaccine hesitancy, even among healthcare workers, but so far, that concern seems overshadowed by enthusiasm. Smith said his department has been fielding calls from employees who want to know when they will be able to get the vaccine. "I think everyone feels relief," he said. "We're at the beginning of the end."

At Mayo, Swift is surveying staff to gauge the willingness to get the vaccine, but she already senses excitement among employees. "No doubt there are still people who are hesitant, but I'm feeling a shift," she said. "I'm feeling this momentum building of healthcare workers coming on board and wanting to take this vaccine, which is good, because they will set an example for their patients."

For Colleen Kelley, MD, an infectious disease physician at Emory University in Atlanta who was principal investigator for an Emory-affiliated Moderna clinical trial site, the past month has been an emotional one. "Things were looking very bleak and dark for a time, and then we started to get these efficacy results that were greater than anyone imagined," she said.

Kelley spends time talking to journalists and educating physician colleagues and hospital employees about how the vaccine was developed so quickly and how it works. "Everyone asks me, 'Should I get it? Are you going to get it?' My answer is 'yes' and 'yes,' " she said. "I am 1000% confident that the benefits of widespread vaccination outweigh the risks of continued COVID and a continued pandemic."

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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