The first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine arrived in New Hampshire Monday, marking a turning point, but not the end, of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors say they’re beginning to feel excitement, and a bit of relief.
“I think the timing couldn't be better from the sense of the exhaustion of our health care workers,” said Cass Walker, vice president of administrative and support services at Lakes Region General Healthcare. “The stress is extreme and the staffing continues to be a struggle for all of us. So it’s just a ray of sunshine and a ray of hope.”
“I think this is probably the most positive thing that’s happened in the last eight to nine months,” said Dr. Greg Baxter, president of Elliot Health Systems.
As the state and the country begin the monumental effort to get people immunized, here are answers to some questions you might have about the vaccine.
How many doses of the vaccine did New Hampshire get?
According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, 12,675 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were expected in the first batch, but not all of those are being distributed this week. Close to 8,000 shots have been set aside for long-term care facilities, which will be administered through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens starting next week.
Beth Daly, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said the vaccines distributed this week will only cover “about one quarter of what we need in order to vaccinate all of the high risk health workers in hospitals.”
“My sense is we will probably be getting several hundred doses, and we probably have a thousand or more high risk personnel,” said Baxter of Elliot Health Systems. “While that sounds like a tremendously long time away...I think we’re still positive and optimistic and just doing it as fast as we can.”
Shipments are expected to arrive weekly, with an estimated 37,000 coming next week between vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna, if the former's vaccine is approved by the FDA for emergency use this week.
“So while this first allotment is small enough to get us started, and then we'll quickly start to receive additional vaccine on a weekly basis going forward, we don't know how much we’ll receive after week two,” Daly said. “But we expect that we will continue to receive more and more vaccine, especially as additional vaccine manufacturers get approval on their vaccines and those become available to the public as well.”
Who will get it first?
People who are considered the most at-risk for getting COVID-19 will get the vaccine first in phase 1a of the state’s distribution plan. That includes health care workers, first responders, and people associated with long-term care settings.
Since the vaccine will be distributed to states in limited shipments, the state has also broken down the most vulnerable people within phase 1a. Doses of the vaccine that arrived Monday will go to the most at-risk health care workers “who provide direct patient care and support staff with risk of exposure to bodily fluids or aerosols” and those with limited patient contact, according to state vaccine allocation guidelines. Those workers began getting their shots Tuesday.
Long-term care facilities won’t start vaccinating until the week of Dec. 21, when the pharmacy partnership program officially begins, but there’s still a lot that long-term care facilities don’t know about the vaccine’s rollout.
Officials say first responders will begin getting it by the end of the month.
The new coronavirus vaccines require two doses. How will the state keep track of who needs their second dose?
The state has set up an initial version of its immunization registry meant to support the first phase of distribution. The system is called VAMS: the Vaccine Administration Management System.
Frontline health workers who plan to get the vaccine this week will be able to register online to get their vaccine through VAMS, and will get an email notification before it’s time for their second dose.
But the state is currently working on shifting to a different registration system for the general public. Eventually, after the initial distribution phase, the state will use the New Hampshire Immunization Information System (NHIIS) to order doses and store and share immunization data. It will eventually be used for all vaccines. Providers are required to participate in the registry to record information about the COVID-19 vaccine -- but not other vaccines -- as ordered by Gov. Chris Sununu last week.
Is the vaccine safe?
The FDA found “no specific safety concerns” with Pfizer’s vaccine in people ages 16 and over, and an analysis found it to be 95 percent effective.
Serious reactions were rare, but there are some minor side effects like redness at the injection site, fatigue and headaches. Hospitals are taking those side effects, paired with existing workforce shortages, into account as they begin to vaccinate their staffs.
"Given the potential side effects of fever, and some of the other things that they're seeing...we obviously don't want to do all of our front line workers at once. So we're going to try to stagger it,” said Jamie LaRoche, director of provider network operations at Lakes Region General Healthcare.
Hospitals and long-term care facilities say they’ve been holding Q&A sessions and kicking off educational campaigns to help build trust in the vaccine. A wider public information campaign on the statewide level is in the planning stages, too. Daly said the state “recognize[s] that we need to use alternative mechanisms to reach people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and have been disproportionately impacted,” and will work with groups to ensure equity of distribution.
When will I be able to get my vaccine?
State health officials estimate that it could be six to 12 months until there is “widespread access” to the vaccine. They say they will be vaccinating those in phase 1a -- a group that includes over 100,000 people -- until the middle of January.
The next stage, 1b, includes people with comorbidities that put them at significantly higher risk, and older adults living in congregate settings. If you fall into a high risk group, you could get the vaccine in the coming months, but health officials estimate the general public could begin getting vaccinated in the spring.
Is the vaccine immediately effective in people?
No, the vaccine does not provide immediate protection from COVID-19. However, the FDA reports that the Pfizer-made vaccine does begin to provide protection for some recipients about ten days after the initial dose, according to data released by the agency. The second dose, delivered 21 days after the first dose, boosts immunity above 90 percent and is highly recommended.