Montgomery County’s healthcare workers will receive Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 shots at Witham Hospital in Lebanon, which has the equipment to store the vaccine at the required subarctic temperatures.
As hospitals dispense the shots to their workers on the front lines of the worsening pandemic, local health departments are gearing up for the next tier of priority groups to be vaccinated.
Health departments have been advised they will receive the vaccine developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, which moved closer to government approval on Tuesday. The first shipment of vaccines is expected to arrive in Montgomery County early next year, as soon as January, county health officer Dr. Scott Douglas said.
The Food and Drug Administration said its preliminary analysis confirmed the effectiveness and safety of the Moderna vaccine. A panel of outside experts is expected to vote to recommend the formula on Thursday, with the FDA’s green light coming soon thereafter.
“We’re all trying to make plans on something that hasn’t been approved yet,” Douglas said in a joint interview with Montgomery County Health Department Administrator Amber Reed.
The Moderna vaccine uses the same technology as Pfizer-BioNTech’s and showed similarly strong protection against COVID-19 but is easier to handle because it does not need to be kept in the deep freeze at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
The vaccines will be stored in medical-grade refrigerators and freezers at the health department’s offices and other locations the department has identified, Reed said.
How many doses the county will receive in the initial shipment is unknown.
After healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, essential workers are next in line for the vaccine. The state has not finalized the types of workers who will be on the list.
It may be late spring or early summer before the vaccine is available to most Americans who don’t have underlying health risks. Each vaccine requires two doses a few weeks apart to be fully effective.
“So even though the vaccines are arriving and we have a lot of optimism about them … we have to keep in mind that they’re not going to have a significant impact on the transmission of the infection for months before we have enough people vaccinated and immune that it makes a significant difference for us in the community,” Douglas said.
About a third of Montgomery County’s coronavirus deaths have come in the past 45 days. An additional death was confirmed Tuesday, bringing the overall total to 36.
More than 600 new coronavirus infections have been reported in the county so far this month, compared to 374 over the first 15 days of November.
An additional 33 new cases were reported Tuesday, bringing the total number of cases to 2,280.
Responding to skeptics of the vaccine’s effectiveness, Douglas said the benefits of the shot appears to outweigh the risks.
The Moderna vaccine was more than 94% effective overall at preventing COVID-19 illness, and 86% effective in people 65 and older. The FDA uncovered no major safety problems. Side effects can include fever, fatigue and aches as the vaccine revs up the immune system.
Both Moderna’s and Pfizer-BioNTech’s shots are so-called mRNA vaccines. They aren’t made with the coronavirus itself, meaning there is no chance anyone could catch it from the shots. Instead, the vaccine contains a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognize the spiked protein on the surface of the virus.
“I think it’s important to get the vaccine not just to protect ourselves but to help decrease the likelihood of transmission of the infection around the community,” Douglas said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.