Vermont primed for arrival of COVID-19 vaccine

First doses of Pfizer-Biontech should arrive in the state this week, with some vaccinations set for Dec. 21

BRATTLEBORO — Now that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given its approval for the emergency use of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, doses of the vaccine have begun arriving in Vermont.

The first 1,950 doses of the vaccine were delivered on Dec. 14. They were split between the State Vaccine Depot and the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.

This is the first portion of the initial 5,850 doses that Vermont has been allocated. An dditional 1,950 doses arrived on Dec. 15, according to the Vermont Health Department.

The says another 1,950 doses will ship later this week directly to pharmacies that have contracted with the federal government to administer vaccines at long-term care facilities.

The Health Department, in coordination with the State Emergency Operations Center, will distribute vaccine to hospitals throughout the state. Vaccinations began on Dec. 15 at UVM Medical Center, with others sites expected to start on Dec. 21.

However, at the current pace of the rollout, many Vermonters will not have access to the vaccine until the spring of 2021.

The federal government, which is responsible for nationwide distribution of vaccines, has promised to distribute the vaccine in quantities relative to each state's population.

However, the federal government has not provided any details on the logistics surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, leaving it to the states to figure out their own plans.

Fortunately, Vermont has been planning for the arrival of the vaccine since July, when the state's COVID-19 Vaccination Planning Team started preparing a plan. This team included experts from the Department of Health, Vermont Emergency Management, UVM Medical Center, and the Agency of Digital Services.

These priorities, approved by Levine, formally follow the recommendation of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and Vermont's COVID-19 Advisory Committee.

Hospitals will immunize their own workers while, in long-term-care facilities, pharmacy workers will give shots to residents and staff over a three-week period.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine cautioned that it won't be until early February or March before the vaccine starts having an effect on the rate of new infections.

“I am not taking away hope here. I am just providing a reality context that the stark statistics on the TV of hospitalizations, deaths, and cases aren't going to change with the snap of a finger because there is a vaccine on the market,” Levine said at a Dec. 10 news conference in Montpelier.

“But they are going to change, and the changes will occur after February - more dramatically, we hope,” he continued.

Who gets it first?

The state draft vaccination plan, submitted to the CDC in October, divides distribution into four phases.

The first phase focuses on health-care workers, particularly those who have contact with patients in high-risk settings, followed by older adults and people who have chronic illnesses and are at the highest risk of developing COVID-19 most severely.

Certain essential workers - such as educators, people in homeless shelters and correctional facilities, and other older adults - are among those in the second phase of distribution.

Young adults, children, and people who work in fields deemed “essential to maintaining a functional society” comprise phase three.

Those remaining are in the final phase.

The state said it will also “collaborate with community organizations and other partners” to ensure that people who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, “have equitable access to the vaccine.”

The plan will also emphasize “the fundamental importance of safety and efficacy” to build trust and to ensure “that Vermonters receive the full benefit of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.”

The Pfizer vaccine poses some major logistical challenges. It requires storage at minus-70 degrees Celsius, and it is given as two shots, 21 days apart. The state says it has enough freezers to accommodate this particular vaccine.

Getting ready

Locally, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and several long-term care facilities are getting ready to start immunization programs.

BMH President and CEO Steven Gordon wrote on Dec. 14 that “beginning this week (assuming statewide vaccine distribution is operational) we will begin vaccinating BMH staff as well as our community partners' heath care providers such EMS (Rescue Inc.) and home health care agencies.”

Calling the vaccine roll-out “a major milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Gordon added that the hospital continues to operate its free pop-up testing site that is available seven days a week.

JoAnne C. Blanchard, executive director of Valley Cares/West River Valley Assisted Living in Townshend, told The Commons that the facility has enrolled in the CDC's Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care (LTC) Program, which offers management and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine in rural LTC facilities.

“Our facility will be working with Walgreens as our pharmacy partner,” Blanchard said. “This COVID-19 vaccine clinic will cover all residents and staff at our facility. We are expecting communication from [Walgreens] in the next one to two weeks.”

She said the CDC has indicated to her that clinics will start no earlier than Dec. 21 at Valley Cares and that clinics for all other long-term care facilities will be scheduled “as soon as there is adequate vaccine allocated to Vermont. Due to production uncertainty, CDC cannot confirm the number of vaccine doses we will receive.”

Dane Rank, lead administrator at Thompson House Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Brattleboro, told The Commons that the 43-bed skilled nursing facility has contracted with Health Direct, a pharmacy services company, to administer the vaccine.

Rank said clinics have been confirmed for Dec. 29, Jan. 18, and Feb. 8. Staff and residents will be receiving two injections of the vaccine 21 days apart. Half of the staff will be immunized on Dec. 29 and get their follow-up shot on Jan. 18, when the other half will get their first dose. On Feb. 8, that second group will get their follow-up dose.

At Pine Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Brattleboro, administrator Diane Sullivan told The Commons that they “are eagerly awaiting the vaccine. We hope to begin vaccination clinics for residents and staff by month's end.”

Pine Heights and the other long-term care facilities in Windham County are currently COVID-19 free, and all have maintained that status since the early days of the pandemic in March.

“We are very proud of our staff as they have been stellar infection prevention specialists over the past many months,” Sullivan said.

“It is time for all of us, most importantly our residents, to be able to hug and hold their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren again,” she said. “That's why we look forward to the upcoming vaccination program.”

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