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Region’s health officials preparing for COVID-19 vaccine distribution

By Richard Rourk

As COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the country, there is hope around the corner.

According to Ballad Health’s Director of Infection Prevention Jamie Swift, a COVID-19 vaccine will soon be available.

“We do expect to receive the vaccine once Pfizer receives their final certification and that could happen in the next few weeks,” Swift said. “We have had a team that has been studying the safety of the vaccine and helping our providers know what is going on with the vaccine. We also have a team we have had to deploy very rapidly to figure out how to vaccinate our team members.”

Swift acknowledged that Ballad Health will be vaccinating their team members and the Tennessee Health Department will be coordinating vaccination efforts for the general public.

“At Ballad Health we will be responsible for vaccinating our healthcare workers,” Swift said. “We have been able to secure ultra-cold freezer units to store the vaccine. We will be doing large vaccination clinics starting with our highest risk team members. With Ballad vaccinating their team, it frees the health department up to focus on the community.”

Unicoi County Health Department Director Michelle Ramsey acknowledges that there is a lot of data available for the community about the vaccine. “

The path to an approved vaccine begins with research involving tens of thousands of volunteers and careful review of all of the data,” Ramsey said. “These data are studied by medical and research experts to make sure the vaccines are safe and show clear benefit. Vaccine manufacturers also have to abide by strict manufacturing and quality control regulations. That means that no vaccines will be released in the U.S. without data that clearly shows that they can prevent COVID-19 and are safe for use. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website for more information about vaccine safety and development processes.”

Ramsey also said several COVID-19 vaccines are being developed.

“As of Nov. 1, 2020, there are five vaccines that have begun large-scale (phase 3) clinical trials in the United States. These COVID-19 vaccines have already been given to tens of thousands of volunteers who are monitored closely to make sure the vaccines are working and safe,” she added. “When COVID-19 vaccines become available, which is likely to be in December 2020 or January 2021, vaccines will be given first to those who are at the highest risk for exposure, such as front-line healthcare workers, and to those at high risk of severe illness or death. This plan is based on CDC recommendations for distributing the initial limited supply of vaccines.”

The general public will most likely be able to take the vaccine during early 2021, according to Ramsey.

“Once vaccines become widely available, estimated to be spring or summer of 2021, anyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one,” she said. “The federal government is providing COVID-19 vaccines to all people at no cost to them. If you want a vaccine, you’ll be able to get a vaccine – even if you don’t have health insurance. Most COVID-19 vaccines that will become available in the U.S. over the next year will require two doses, spaced three to four weeks apart. The first dose only “primes” the immune system and will likely not provide much, if any, protection from infection. The second dose is what creates the lasting protection against the virus. If you get a vaccine that needs two doses, be sure to get both. Tennessee is waiting to learn details regarding the vaccines that will be provided from the federal government.”

According to Swift, the vaccination process will take time.

“This vaccination is going to be a phased approach,” Swift said. “We anticipate a widespread vaccination to be complete sometime into the summer,” Swift said. “We can still plan on following the current guidelines of hygiene measures, social distancing and mask-wearing until the whole country is vaccinated.”

Ramsey and the Unicoi County Health Department are following the CDC guidelines for long term COVID-19 prevention.

“According to CDC, while experts learn more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide under real-life conditions, it will be important for everyone to continue using all the tools available to us to help stop this pandemic, like covering your mouth and nose with a mask, washing hands often, and staying at least six feet away from others,” Ramsey said. “Together, COVID-19 vaccination and following CDC’s recommendations for how to protect yourself and others will offer the best protection from getting and spreading COVID-19. Experts need to understand more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide before deciding to change recommendations on steps everyone should take to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Other factors, including how many people get vaccinated and how the virus is spreading in communities, will also affect this decision.”

Swift acknowledges that the vaccine is safe.

“Although the potency of the vaccine is currently unknown, we have done a lot of research to ensure the vaccine is safe and we have worked to be comfortable with the process and understand it before we took a stand and recommended it,” Swift said. “People may hear ‘warp speed’ and worry the vaccine was rushed, but all that means is that vaccine developers were able to run phases simultaneously. The vaccine will be FDA approved before it is distributed.”

According to Swift, the vaccine is similar to the yearly flu shot.

“We want people to be aware that they may have soreness of the injection site (arm) and feel a little bit sluggish after taking the vaccine,” Swift said. “This is normal. This is your body building up its defenses. This vaccine is not a live vaccine, you cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine itself. This reaction would be just your body mounting its defense, which is a good thing.”

Ramsey acknowledges that although the flu and COVID vaccine share common ground, they are very different.

“A flu vaccine will not protect you from getting COVID-19, but it can prevent you from getting influenza (flu) at the same time as COVID-19,” Ramsey said. “This can keep you from having a more severe illness. While it’s not possible to say with certainty what will happen in the winter, CDC believes it’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading during that time. That means that getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever. Free flu vaccines are available daily at the Unicoi County Health Department. Please call the health department at 743-9103 for appointment.”

Swift is certain that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I do see us getting back to normal life, but it will not be overnight,” she said.

For more info about vaccines, please visit: https://covid19.tn.gov/stay-informed/blogs/5-things-you-should-know-about-covid-19-vaccines/

TDH draft COVID vaccination plan is available online at https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/COVID-19_Vaccination_Plan.pdf