Oklahoma health experts during an online forum Wednesday discussed the COVID-19 vaccine, detailing when the first doses might become available, how they'll be administered, and why people should get the vaccination.
Officials with the Cherokee Nation Health Service and Northeastern Health System, both in Tahlequah, are expecting shipments soon, but no specific date has been announced.
The Pfizer-BionTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine are the two products Americans could see being distributed the soonest. The Food and Drug Administration was to meet Thursday to decide whether the Pfizer vaccines should be approved for emergency use authorization, and the Moderna product could be approved sometime next week.
Dr. Douglas Drevets, chief of infectious diseases at OU Health in Oklahoma City, said if the vaccines receive emergency approval, the doses available to the U.S. would start to be distributed fairly rapidly, and that their administration would not be much different from that of the flu vaccine.
“These are both intramuscular vaccines,” said Drevets. “That sounds horrible, but it’s the same way the flu vaccine every year is administered. It generally goes into your shoulder in the deltoid muscle with a needle that’s based upon your body size.”
Citizens will be able to get the shots free of charge, but the timeline for when the general public will have access is still undetermined. Jared Taylor, Oklahoma’s interim state epidemiologist, said it depends on how quickly manufacturers can replenish supplies, and what kind of uptake among priority recipients the state will see.
“So if we get very strong uptake among our health care workers and into our long-term care residents, which are going to be the priority one recipients, we’re going to use up more of our dose allocation,” Taylor. “If we’re not as successful in getting those individuals into the vaccination program, we would have more vaccines available to distribute to the lower tiers sooner, but we don’t want that. We want to get everyone throughout all of the tiers taking the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them.”
The COVID-19 virus is novel; no one prior to this year had immunity to it. Taylor said the only way the country will get to the point where transmission is not an ongoing problem is to achieve adequate immunity – often referred to as "herd immunity" – so the likelihood of people running into an infected person is relatively low.
“The reason that is so important – and we can’t go to more almost routine control measures, such as just looking out for those individuals that have symptoms – is because we know that asymptomatic individuals play a notable role in the transmission of this virus as well,” he said. “Some folks who have spoken about achieving herd immunity through natural exposure and natural infection are seeing through serologic surveys of the state and even across the country, that such aspiration would bring tremendous intolerable costs, or what I would hope would be intolerable for more reasonable persons.”
Some people, including Cherokee County residents, have expressed concern about the safety of the new vaccines. The schedule for having one developed has shrunk from what health officials first predicted earlier this year, leading some to suggest it may have been rushed.
Eliza Chakravarty, association member of the Arthritis & Clinical Immunology Research Program at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, said that because vaccines have been an integral part of public health for decades, there are structured mechanisms for reviewing vaccine research for safety and efficacy, and those mechanisms would not be violated.
“So yes, the timeline has been accelerated for this vaccine, but it is not due to cutting corners,” she said. “We had a couple of head starts as far as developing the vaccine. People have been working on this new technology for a long time. We’ve known other coronaviruses that have helped us identify which parts of the virus are going to make the best immune response, and we got the exact genetic structure of the virus in January.”
What type of long-term protection the vaccines will offer has not yet been determined, but according to the health experts, they are about 95 percent effective at preventing infection. Drevets said people can have a reasonable degree of hope that they will provide immunity for more than a year and up to five years. The answer to how long until the virus gets under control is dependent on a variety of factors, though.
“It depends on how fast it gets distributed, how many people say they will take it, and then it also depends on how fast the virus continues to circulate in the community and people continue to get natural infection and build up immunity that way,” Drevets. “With some modeling studies, I think we can be hopeful that we can start seeing serious declines in new infections by the late winter.”