Indiana is getting ready to receive its first doses of a coronavirus vaccine sometime next month, and St. Joseph County health officials expect some of it is coming to the area.
Pfizer, the company which makes the vaccine, has submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration for approval, and the government agency is expected to review it in early December, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said Wednesday.
Hospitals and health care workers should be prepared to receive the first doses of the vaccine soon after, she said.
Frontline health care workers are expected to be the first people in the state vaccinated.
St. Joseph County Health Officer Dr. Robert Einterz said Friday he thinks some area health care workers could get the vaccine before the end of the year.
Studies have found the Pfizer vaccine to be about 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infections. A competitor developed by Moderna, which is expected to receive approval by early next year, has shown similar results.
Both vaccines will require two doses spaced either 21 or 28 days apart, Box said. One dose will not confer immunity.
Because the Pfizer vaccine must be stored in an ultra-cold freezer, at first it will likely only be available at five pilot hospital sites around the state, state health officials have said. Those are Community Hospital in Munster, Clark Memorial Hospital in Jeffersonville, Deaconess in Evansville, Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis and Parkview Health in Fort Wayne.
Einterz said he was not familiar with an initial five-hospital distribution plan. To his knowledge, the area’s two mayor health care systems, Saint Joseph Health System and Beacon Health System, have been tapped by the state for “phase 1A” vaccine distribution to health care workers.
“My understanding is that Saint Joe Regional is going to be responsible for St. Joseph County, and they in fact should be getting the vaccine, and Beacon will be responsible for Elkhart County,” Einterz said. “In phase 1A, they’ve prioritized, so there’s just a certain amount of vaccine going, and it’s going to be prioritized for folks on the front line. How that gets defined is a little unclear still.”
He said the health systems would have more information.
Dr. Genevieve Lankowicz, regional chief clinical officer for Saint Joseph Health System, said in a statement Friday that the Indiana State Department of Health has developed a statewide distribution plan that identifies participating hospitals in most counties. For St. Joseph and Marshall counties, Saint Joseph Health System has been designated.
“We are able to provide cold storage according to specifications and do expect to receive vaccine from Pfizer in mid-December as per the State Department of Health’s plan,” Lankowicz said.
A message left Friday afternoon with Beacon Health System for a comment was not immediately returned.
On Wednesday, Box warned that some people who receive the vaccine may experience side effects such as fever, headache or muscle aches in the days following the shot. These are considered normal and temporary.
“We can be very thankful that we do have vaccines that are showing this kind of efficacy and this kind of safety,” Box said.
Einterz said he didn’t think health care workers would be required to be vaccinated, but he expected what he called “vaccine hesitancy” to be lower among health care workers than the general public. People may be hesitant to get the vaccine because it was developed quickly, and they may fear not all side effects are known, he said.
Box warned that the vaccine will not be a “get out of jail free card.” People will need to continue wearing masks, socially distancing, washing their hands and staying home if ill for the foreseeable future.
Until the vaccine is widely available, the state must get beyond the high number of coronavirus cases it has been seeing on a daily basis, Box said. And short of a vaccine, the only way to do that is to follow the public health advice and wear your mask, social distance and wash your hands.
Vaccines are not expected to be widely available to the public before spring at the earliest, Einterz said.
Lankowicz, who is also a member of the county health department’s Unified Command team in response to the coronavirus pandemic, gave the county health board an update Nov. 18 on the health system’s work.
She said the hospital expected to soon receive vaccines and had a new drug to treat COVID, too.
“We also have a new medication which we’ve nicknamed ‘bam’ because it’s so terribly difficult to say bamlanivimab,” Lankowicz told the board.
She said President Trump received something similar to treat COVID and felt it helped him recover quickly.
“We did in fact give it to one person so far who said the same,” Lankowicz said. “The studies show it’s pretty helpful, so we’re very excited that we’ll have that to offer in our community, too, and there might be other medications like it coming soon behind.”