Pending emergency authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, UPMC hopes to have the Pfizer covid-19 vaccine distributed to all of its front-line workers by the end of January, leaders in the hospital system said Tuesday.
The system anticipates arrival of its first allocation of Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC’s medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology, said the shipment will be between “thousands to tens of thousands of doses.”
On Tuesday, the FDA released an initial review that deems Pfizer’s vaccine 95% protective against covid-19. On Thursday, a panel of independent experts will scrutinize the data and vote on whether to recommend use of the vaccine.
Health care workers will be a priority for the Pfizer vaccine, which will be administered on a voluntary basis, Snyder said. While UPMC employees are required to receive influenza vaccinations, Snyder said the covid-19 vaccination will not be mandatory “until we build more experience with the vaccine.”
The Moderna covid vaccine is expected to arrive shortly after Pfizer’s, Snyder said, and will be prioritized for both front-line workers and residents in long-term care facilities.
“We’re still waiting for further data on how safe and how will the vaccinations work,” Snyder noted. “Including how they work in our most vulnerable.”
Vaccinations to the general public could still be a few months away, officials said.
Guidelines from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (a group within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) mandate the order of distribution for the vaccine — prioritizing health care workers and long-term care residents first, followed by other essential workers and then to others with high-risk medical conditions. Snyder said distribution to health care workers will likely take one or two months, at least.
Both vaccines require two doses spaced about three weeks apart. Snyder said second doses have already been committed to UPMC. Front-line health care workers could start receiving doses as soon as the FDA authorizes the vaccine.
All of the region’s hospital systems are likewise making preparations for vaccine distribution. At Excela Health, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Carol Fox said the system has requested nearly 6,000 doses for medical and other staff.
“We do anticipate receiving covid vaccines once the Pfizer vaccine (or Moderna, depending on which is first to gain approval) receives an Emergency Authorization from the FDA,” Fox said Tuesday. “We are told to anticipate arrival within days of approval.”
Dr. Brian Parker, chief quality learning officer at Allegheny Health Network, said state officials have suggested doses could arrive as early as Dec. 15. He said he’s unsure how many doses the network will receive — according to CDC guidelines, he said, the doses are being allocated based on state population. Parker said Pennsylvania health officials have warned that not all hospitals may get doses on the first allocation round.
“Now we see that light at the end of the tunnel,” Parker said, saying the network has devised a system to schedule vaccinations of its health care workers. “Everyone is just glad we’re going to start getting (the vaccine) and administering it.”
News of potential vaccine distribution comes as UPMC and other hospitals in the region experience an alarming surge in covid-19 hospitalizations. Leslie Davis, UPMC senior vice president, said communities served by all UPMC hospitals — with locations in three states — are experiencing the highest level of covid cases and hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic.
But while nurses across the region have described intense workloads, diverted patients, crowded emergency departments and dwindling ICU bed availability — including some at UPMC facilities — Davis said the system has effectively adapted to meet the increased need, even describing a “calm feeling” across hospitals.
“We’re busy but we are not overwhelmed in any way,” Davis said.
Davis said covid patients make up 20% of UPMC’s total bed capacity, and said the majority of covid patients do not require ICU care.
She listed several measures the system has taken to maintain adequate staff levels, including hiring 200 new nurses from agencies and from within the system – employees with clinical backgrounds who have voluntarily moved back into patient care to meet the need. Davis said the system has also increased the hours of some part-time nurses, moving them up to full-time.
Last week, about 60 nurses were added at UPMC Altoona alone, she said.
The system has procedures in place to quickly add additional beds when necessary — Davis named the accelerated opening of a new intensive care unit at UPMC Mercy Hospital — and developed better clinical strategies so covid patients have shorter hospital stays and shortened the quarantine period for workers who may have been exposed to the virus.
The system just received two allocations of antibody treatments from pharmaceutical companies Regeneron and Eli Lilly, said Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC’s chair of emergency medicine.
Yealy said the system is also continuing with its own development of covid-19 therapies, namely its monoclonal antibody treatments, Ab1 and Ab8. Clinical trials for the drugs will begin soon, he said.
“We think they have the potential to be much more powerful than the current therapies,” Yealy said. “Antibodies hold the promise of being curative for those that are covid-19-positive, and unlike vaccines, which are preventative, they don’t require you to mount any type of response to be effective.”
Renatta Signorini contributed to this report.
Teghan Simonton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Teghan at 724-226-4680, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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