It became a little clearer Thursday when and how health care workers on the frontlines would receive a COVID-19 vaccine, as the federal government moved closer to approving one of the first COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use.
Advocate Aurora and other hospitals may start giving frontline workers doses of the vaccine as soon as early next week, while nursing home workers and residents may not receive the vaccine until late December or January.
“It’s amazing news. Nobody expected any sort of vaccine anytime this year — even you know, three months ago,” Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention for Advocate Aurora Health, said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Wisconsin expects to receive about 50,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine the week of Dec. 14, followed by a batch of 101,000 Moderna doses as soon as the following week.
The state is awaiting FDA approval for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which could come as early as this week. This would allow use of the vaccines in emergencies but is not the same as full FDA approval.
News of the vaccine comes at a time when deaths from the novel coronavirus continue to mount quickly, Wisconsin hospitals struggle with severe staffing shortages and the state’s percentage of first-time positive tests remains around 30%, an indicator more people are infected and going undetected.
On Thursday the state reported 4,034 new COVID-19 cases and 57 deaths, bringing the death toll to 3,944. New daily cases have declined from a mid-November peak, but overall testing has dipped too.
As of Thursday there were 1,484 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the state, including 332 patients in intensive care.
Although hospitalizations have declined nearly 35% from their mid-November peak, that could change in coming weeks, said Gary Stuck, chief medical officer of Advocate Aurora Health.
“We have more holidays coming up in the next few weeks and we are very concerned that those gatherings will generate more cases of COVID-19,” Stuck said. “Just like with Thanksgiving, we are encouraging people to avoid in-person gatherings.”
While nursing home residents and staff will likely be among the first in line to receive a vaccine, they are not expected to receive any doses of the vaccine until late December at the earliest, said John Sauer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin, a statewide association of long-term care providers.
“More likely it’s going to be January 2021,” said Sauer, who discussed vaccine efforts on a call Thursday with state Department of Health Services officials and other adult care associations.
“Right now, the system is not ready to begin widespread distribution of the vaccine to long-term care facilities,” he said.
CVS and Walgreens will deliver and administer the vaccines to most nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The pharmacies will set up onsite visits with the state’s nursing homes and other facilities and send pharmacy workers to administer the vaccine to residents and staff, Sauer said.
“It’s a mammoth undertaking,” Sauer said. “There are some logistical issues that are simply going to make it very difficult for nursing home staff and residents to receive the vaccine before any other health care provider. I’m just glad we’re at equal placement on the priority scale.”
There are about 96,000 residents in Wisconsin nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Sauer said. It is less clear how many people work in nursing homes and other long-term care, but Sauer said the state estimates it may need to vaccinate as many staff as residents.
Advocate Aurora does not know how many doses of the vaccine it will receive, Citronberg said. Supplies of the vaccine will be limited at first but are expected to increase in January or February, he said.
The health system is now determining which employees will get the vaccine first.
“What we’re doing at Advocate Aurora is we are working hard to prioritize the people who would benefit from it most. It’s clearly our frontline health care workers, especially ones who take care of COVID patients, and also people who work and live in long-term care facilities. Those are our highest risk areas,” Citronberg said. “And there’s a third — which is not unimportant — is people who work in an ambulatory clinic like urgent care clinics where they’re seeing COVID patients as well.”
He acknowledged that there won’t be “nearly enough vaccine” in the first shipment to cover all those people, adding that decisions are also being made based on those most likely to get infected and to get seriously ill because of age or underlying health conditions.
Advocate Aurora does not expect to be able to vaccinate all its employees in direct contact with patients this month. That is expected to take four to six weeks. The health system expects to vaccinate all its employees over the next several months.
“We’re just preaching patience,” Citronberg said. “We didn’t even expect there to be any sort of vaccine this year. So it’s just a bonus. It’s like we got bonus doses in December.”
Both vaccines require two doses — one, and then a second a few weeks later. The initial shipment of nearly 50,000 doses will serve as first doses for as many people. Because the state anticipates additional shipments from the federal government, it will not save half the initial supply to serve as second doses, said Stephanie Schauer, one of the leaders of the state’s vaccination effort.
Citronberg warned that the vaccine becoming available doesn’t mean the pandemic is instantly over, especially with so many people waiting to get immunized.
People who receive the vaccine still must wear masks and maintain social distancing.
The vaccine prevents sickness, Citronberg said. But whether it prevents the virus from spreading is not known.
“It’s not a medical passport per se. So you’re not free to go anywhere, or do anything, because you’ve gotten the vaccine,” he said.
Advocate Aurora will not require its employees to get the vaccine given the limited information on its long-term effects, Stuck said.
“We are very optimistic that the vast majority of our team members will take the vaccine over the next few months,” Stuck said.
The health system’s policy also could change in the coming months.
Aurora expects to have “vaccine centers,” including several in Wisconsin and Illinois, where it will store the vaccine and distribute it to other sites within the health system, Citronberg said.
“At least for the foreseeable future, we’re not going to have vaccine available at every hospital or every clinic, that’s for sure,” he said.
Sophie Carson and Mark Johnson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.