The first doses of vaccine to protect local frontline health workers in Montezuma County from COVID-19 arrived Wednesday at Southwest Memorial Hospital.
The Cortez hospital received an initial shipment of 150 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, said Southwest Health System CEO Tony Sudduth. And more is on the way.
“We feel confident it is a safe vaccine, and the initial supply is enough to cover our frontline health care workers,” he said.
Dr. Ben Carelock was one of first to get the vaccine shot in the large hospital lobby, which was set up for the vaccinations.
“I’m proud to be taking the Covid-19 vaccine. It’s not just about preventing staff from getting sick, it’s about protecting our patients and the community.”
He credited the tireless efforts of lab workers to develop the vaccines and the 50,000 volunteers who stepped up to participate in the trial.
A steady stream of doctors and health care staff arrived for the historic shot. Banks of computers logged in participants, and workers filled syringes from vaccine vials.
While the vaccine rollout has begun, it will take many months to reach everyone. Health care officials urged the public to stay vigilant on practicing COVID prevention measures. Access to the vaccine by the general public is not expected until summer.
Pfizer vaccinations include a follow-up shot after 21 days.
Another 150 doses are expected to arrive next week, Sudduth said. The Montezuma County Health Department expects its first Pfizer vaccine supply next week, officials said.
Orders are also in for the Moderna vaccine, which is being considered for emergency use authorization this week by the Federal Drug Administration.
Under a Phase 1A distribution plan implemented by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, high-risk health care workers who have direct contact with patients for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period are the first in line to receive the vaccine.
Long-term care facility staff and residents will also be among the first to be vaccinated.
Sudduth said all hospital staff who meet the criteria have the option to get vaccinated, but it is voluntary. Overall, there has been willingness by staff to get vaccinated.
Carelock said he felt it was part of his civic responsibility to get vaccinated. “We should not ask people to do something we are not willing to do ourselves.”
He has a high comfort level with the safety of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines because they are “aggressively scrutinized” and went through a FDA approval process and clinical trials.
Development of vaccines against COVID-19 and historic diseases “is like slaying one of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse,” Carelock said.
Ninety doses were expected to be given Wednesday to hospital workers, said SHS pharmacist Kelsey Gilbert, and 60 will be given Thursday.
The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at minus 84 degrees Fahrenheit, and once removed from the freezer, it must be administered within five days.
Southwest Health System has purchased a specialized freezer to store future Pfizer vaccine shipments. The Moderna vaccine does not have to be stored in freezing conditions.
How does it work?The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use a messenger RNA strategy to create antibodies that then attack the COVID-19 virus once detected in the body, said SHS medical director Kent Aikin.
It is different from traditional vaccines used for the flu or measles, which inject a small piece of inactive virus that the body recognizes as foreign and causes the buildup of an immune response.
Instead of using a piece of the virus, the messenger RNA vaccine utilizes a protein marker, or spike, that is very similar to a piece of the COVID-19 virus, Aikin said.
The distinct protein marker triggers an antibody reaction that destroys the actual COVID-19 virus once detected in the body.
After Phase 1A vaccinations for highest risk health care workers, the process will move to Phase 1B for vaccinating health care workers in the fields of home health, hospice, dental, EMS, jails, firefighting, first responders, law enforcement, funeral services and COVID-19 response personnel.
Plans are in place for clinics to serve community members in the Phase 1B category, said Karen Dickson, emergency preparedness coordinator for the Montezuma County Health Department.
The vaccine clinic locations will not be revealed publicly for security reasons, she said, but people targeted to receive the vaccine will be notified.
Eventually the general public will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, and clinics will be set up, possibly at the Montezuma County Fairgrounds.
The Montezuma County Health Department already has some practice.
In June 2017, local health departments and emergency responders held a mock emergency scenario that involved an unknown highly contagious respiratory disease.
The exercise set up a mock clinic at the county annex with crowds of people to mimic a mass vaccination procedure.
“This is the reason for those practice runs. You hope it never is needed, but when it does, you’re more prepared,” Dickson said.
She emphasized that people not let their guard down and continue to wear masks, avoid large groups and social distance.
“Herd immunity will take a while, and in the meantime infections will continue,” Dickson said.
She added vaccinations of high-risk populations, such as the elderly, will help reduce the current patient burden on Southwest Memorial Hospital.