The first wave of COVID-19 vaccines could be available to some frontline health care workers and nursing home residents in central Illinois in just a matter of days or weeks.
A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel gave emergency use authorization to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday evening. The expert panel found the benefits of using the vaccine in populations ages 16 and older outweighed the risks. Clinical trials on children are still upcoming.
NPR reports the FDA is expected to move quickly on final approval.
Dr. Douglas Kasper, the section head of Infectious Disease at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria and OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, said this vaccine works differently from most others.
"The proposed vaccine for COVID-19 infection does not include any live virus, or any inactivated virus. What it includes is a script, telling our bodies to create a specific protein that the virus uses to dock to human cells," Kasper said. "Our immune system recognizes that protein and creates an immune response that can be used if we are ever exposed to the virus down the road."
Central Illinois officials already are preparing for a quick and smooth rollout. OSF St. Francis will serve as a regional coordinating center for COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
"We will coordinate with small areas. We will work with large areas that serve with nursing homes, group homes, and even our judicial system and prisons, eventually," Kasper said. "The specific structures do require multiple meetings and discussions to set up a completely new network. But we frequently administer vaccines yearly across many populations. So this is just another channel, a new product, to bring to the new community."
Last week, Gov. JB Pritzker announced OSF Saint Francis will receive 5,850 of the initial 109,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses Illinois is set to receive from the federal government. Counties within the region highlighted as priority areas for vaccine distribution include Bureau, Warren, LaSalle, Knox, Rock Island, Tazewell, and Stark counties. Those areas were selected based on the 50 counties with the highest death rates per capita due to COVID.
Local officials aren't exactly sure when the first doses will arrive once the FDA gives the final stamp of approval to the first vaccine.
"It could be weeks. It could be less than a couple days," said Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson.
Hendrickson noted even if the vaccine arrives before Christmas, it will still be vital to continue practicing the social distancing, mask-wearing, and handwashing habits public health officials have reiterated for months--and to avoid gathering with people outside your household for the holidays.
"For the vaccine to work--and even when you get vaccinated, you can still get infected--is really going to be the second dose," she said.
That booster dose is delivered 28 days after the first dose, and must be made by the same manufacturer as the first dose to be effective.
For people in relatively good health who aren't working on the front lines during the pandemic, the vaccine probably won't be readily accessible for quite some time.
"You want to continue practicing those precautions," Hendrickson said. "Because the first batches are going to be limited. And they're going to in those groups that are taking direct patient care with COVID. And those high-risk individuals. So when you bring it to the general population, it could be months away."
Both UnityPoint Health and OSF HealthCare say getting the COVID-19 vaccine will be endorsed, but not mandated, for their employees.
“Similar to our organizational policy around the flu shot, we will strongly encourage, but not require, team members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine," a UnityPoint spokeswoman said in a statement.
"It will not be mandatory for OSF HealthCare Mission Partners to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. We are hopeful all that are eligible will choose to receive one when offered," said an OSF spokeswoman.
For his part, Kasper said the vaccine prevents both moderate and severe COVID-19 outcomes for people ages 18 and older. He said side effects are mild, with less than 2% of those vaccinated in Pfizer and Moderna's trials experiencing muscle pain, headaches, or pain at the injection site.
"The creation of this vaccine is a wonder for our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.
Public health officials estimate about 80% of the U.S. population must receive the COVID-19 vaccine to build up effective herd immunity among the general populace. Even those who already have suffered from the virus are encouraged to still get a vaccine, said Kasper, and that allergic reactions are very rare.
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