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First coronavirus vaccine shipments expected next week

But achieving the ‘herd immunity’ needed to end a grueling pandemic is expected to take months

Vail Health Hospital pharmacist Jessica Peterson, left, places two boxes of mock COVID-19 vaccines into the hospital's ultra-cold freezer at the hospital on Dec. 8 in Vail. The mock vaccines are packaged in the thermal shipping containers that uses dry ice to maintain a temperature of between -60 to -86 degrees celsius to keep the vaccines cold. They in turn will be transferred to these ultra-cold freezer to maintain those temperatures. There are only a handful of hospitals that have these very specialized ultra-cold freezers which will limit in the beginning where the vaccines will end up in Colorado. Vail Health Hospital has the capacity to store up to 5,000 doses in its freezer.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Health officials in Eagle County say they are eagerly awaiting the delivery of a first shipment of coronavirus vaccine in coming days, and are ready to start administering it to the highest-priority groups as soon as it arrives.

At the same time, they caution that this is and will remain a dangerous time for the spread of COVID-19.

Rapid development of coronavirus vaccines is offering “a light at the end of the tunnel,” promising to eventually end a global pandemic that in America has sickened millions, killed nearly 300,000, devastated the economy and upended nearly every aspect of daily life since March.



But for now and for months to come, curbing an ongoing surge of coronavirus infections will likely depend more on pandemic-weary people continuing to take adequate precautions to prevent the virus’s spread than on widespread vaccination.

Going into the holiday season, coronavirus spread is at the highest level of the pandemic, said Heath Harmon, public health director for Eagle County.



Vail Health Hospital nurse Diane Schmidt, left, gives a mock COVID-19 vaccine to Caitlyn Ngam, right, an infection preventionist at the hospital Tuesday in Vail,. With the state expecting its first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine in a matter of days, the state health department ran an exercise to see how ready it is to take on such a mass vaccination campaign. The Pfizer vaccine, which is the first shot expected to gain federal approval, will be difficult for the state to distribute as it needs to be stored at sub-zero temperatures and requires two shots.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via AP

“The vaccine coming in will be in such limited supply it will be like trying to fight a wildfire with a garden hose,” Harmon said. “We need to reduce the size of the wildfire down to a campfire … As hopeful and optimistic as we are (about the vaccine), we need to continue to do our job as a community to take precautions so we can keep the disease spread under control. It will take all of us to have this go right.”

How it will be distributed

About half of Colorado counties are now in level Red public health restrictions. State officials anticipate getting 46,800 doses of Pfizer vaccine for distribution as soon as next week, following the vaccine’s emergency-use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to happen any day.

The Pfizer vaccine, 95% effective in clinical trials, requires two doses given 21 days apart. It also requires storage in specialized freezers. Those have already been installed at Vail Health Hospital and at other locations around Colorado that will help with the vaccine’s storage and distribution.

The distribution of the coronavirus vaccine has been divided into several phases that stretch into next spring and summer, state officials announced on Wednesday. Vaccination of people in phase 1 is targeted for this winter.

Vail Health Hospital pharmacy technician Rob Brown gets ready to take the mock COVID-19 vaccines out of the thermal shipping container in the pharmacy at the hospital on Tuesday in Vail.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via AP

The top-priority group, phase 1A, includes high-risk health care workers who have direct contact with COVID-19 patients for 15 minutes or longer over a 24-hour period, as well as staff and residents of long-term senior care facilities. Phase 1B includes moderate-risk health care workers who have less direct contact with COVID-19 patients; workers in home health, hospice and dental care settings; and first responders such as EMS, firefighters, police, correctional workers, dispatchers and funeral service providers.

Phase 2, which is targeted for vaccination by next spring, includes people who are 65 and older; people of any age with health conditions that put them at risk of serious complications from coronavirus; and essential workers who interact daily with the public or work in high-density settings.

The general public, people ages 18-64 without high-risk conditions, is phase 3 and targeted for vaccination by next summer.

Distributing and administering vaccines around the state and around the country will be a massive logistical challenge.

An estimated 875 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are planned to be available for Vail Health Hospital as part of the first shipment in Colorado. The hospital partnered with state officials earlier this week for a vaccine delivery practice run.

“We’re hoping to receive that shipment as soon as it can be legally distributed. We are prepared and ready to get it any day going forward,” said Chris Lindley, chief population health officer for Vail Health. “Those folks in that first priority group, we know who they are and they’re all already signed up. From the moment we get (the vaccine) we’ll be able to administer it.”

While 875 doses may sound like a small amount, it will allow a first round of vaccinations to start for as many as half of the people who are covered by phases 1A and 1B in Eagle County.

“I feel really grateful that we’re receiving as much as we are,” Harmon said. “We’re fortunate that we are going to be able to get 50% into that group.”

Full immunity will take at least five weeks, requiring both vaccinations followed by a period of two weeks. Even after that, immunized health care workers will continue to wear personal protective equipment and follow all existing infection control practices, Lindley said.

Another coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Moderna is also expected to see fast-track emergency authorization by FDA in coming days. It also requires two doses, given 28 days apart, and was found to be 94.5% effective in clinical trials.

Colorado expects to receive 95,600 doses of the Moderna vaccine in the first shipment after it is approved by FDA, with 1,100 doses going to Eagle County Public Health and 800 doses for Vail Health Hospital. Those doses are anticipated to be available as soon as the week of Dec. 20.

Colorado makes up about 1.69% of the U.S. population and state officials say they expect to see the state getting 1.69% of the available vaccines as they are approved and shipped each week going forward.

‘Remain vigilant’

Harmon called the rapid development of coronavirus vaccines remarkable and unprecedented. “The scientific marvel of going from not knowing about a virus to having vaccine that’s 95% effective in less than 12 months is a miracle,” he said.

But vaccine shipments and a phased distribution plan stretching into next spring and summer will begin as Colorado and most of the country remain in the midst of a surge in coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

The vaccines are the gateway to a life without the pandemic, but it will take time until all six million Coloradans can access it, state officials said. Gov. Polis has described the situation as a marathon, not a sprint, and is asking everyone to remain vigilant by continuing to wear masks, stay at least 6 feet away from others in public, and not gather with people outside their household.

The U.S. reported its highest daily coronavirus death tolls this week. Colorado is averaging about 3,900 new infections a day, with 49% of its critical care ventilators and 18% of its available hospital beds in use for coronavirus patients, according to the state health department.

Eagle County, which remains in level orange public health restrictions, has reported 30 to 40 new infections a day over the past week and Vail Health continues to test more people for the virus than ever before. It is opening a new testing site in Gypsum next week to help meet testing demand.

“We’ve never had more cases in this valley than we are going to have this week,” Lindley said about the surge in infections. “We know we are going to see really alarming death reports across the country every day for probably the next 60 to 90 days. The numbers being reported nationally are going to continue to get worse.”

Lindley said the toll the virus is taking around the country should be a stark reminder to the local community that the pandemic is not over and that even with a vaccine on the horizon, people need to keep taking precautions to prevent the virus’s spread.

“We’ve done extremely well. Schools are still in in-person learning, restaurants are still serving patrons, we still have visitors. But we can’t celebrate yet. We have to continue to be successful,” Lindley said.


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