As the first American health care 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, Mich., 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.
“Health care 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, Minn. “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 Dec. 18 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-19 cases and 953 deaths among health care workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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 health care 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 Dr. Swift, 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 health care workers. Mayo gave its first vaccines on Dec. 18, but the vaccination program began in earnest the following week. With the pleasant surprise that each five-dose vial actually provides six doses, 474 vials will allow for the vaccination of 2,844 employees in the top-priority group. “It’s going to expand each week or few days as we get more and more vaccine,” Dr. Swift said.