Public health officer calls vaccine ‘a game changer’
The daily number of COVID-19 cases surged Monday to a record-breaking 360 in Santa Barbara County after the Thanksgiving season.
But hope during the long pandemic could land as soon as today with the arrival of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Henning Ansorg, the Santa Barbara County public health officer, noted doses could arrive by today at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria. FedEx planes with the vaccine landed Monday at Los Angeles International Airport.
“Honestly, I think it’s a game changer,” Dr. Ansorg told the News-Press Monday. “This is the first time that we have something in our hands that can prevent the disease from spreading.”
In a new development, Lompoc Valley Medical Center, which originally was to have received the Pfizer vaccine from Marian, has decided to wait to receive the Moderna vaccine, which, pending FDA approval, could come as soon as next week, Dr. Ansorg said.
First up to get the Pfizer vaccine are first responders and healthcare workers on the frontline of fighting the pandemic.
Designated staff from Cottage Health’s hospitals in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Solvang, as well as its clinics, will go to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for the shots, Dr. David Fisk told the News-Press.
“It’s 975 doses for the first round — at least that many, possibly more,” Dr. Fisk, Cottage Health’s medical director for infection prevention and control, said.
He said the first priority goes to physicians and hospital staff who have come into contact with known COVID-19 patients or people who have a high potential of carrying COVID-19. The first-priority recipients include staff and physicians from the emergency room, urgent care clinics, Intensive Care Units and surgical, medical and general floors.
“Everyone who gets admitted to Cottage gets a COVID test on admission, a rapid test result,” said Dr. Fisk, who’s also an infectious diseases physician with Sansum Clinic.
Dr. Ansorg said the vaccines could be given as soon as this month to the next group: residents and health care workers and staff at nursing homes. “Definitely by January.”
Dr. Ansorg said the tier after that, essential workers in various occupations, should start getting their vaccines in February. “That’s my hope. It depends on the companies producing the vaccine, how much they produce.”
Dr. Fisk noted the Pfizer vaccine was developed and approved in record time. “I think the meaning at large is that it’s a great time of hope, and it’s a wonderful milestone. Hopefully it’s the beginning of our ability to slow the spread of this virus.”
But he said it could take a long time to determine if the vaccine lives up to its potential as a game changer. “It can’t replace our diligence at our own protective precautions.”
Doctors are urging people, including those who are vaccinated, to continue to wear masks, stay six feet from others and wash their hands frequently.
“We don’t know yet how good these vaccines are at preventing the spread of the virus,” Dr. Fisk said. “The initial ones may not prevent the spread of the virus. We also know it’s going to take many months to get large numbers of people vaccinated in the United States.
“One thing I can say, though, is our ability to stem this tide will depend in part on our communication about the safety of the vaccine,” Dr. Fisk said. “The information we’ve been receiving is very reassuring.”
Under the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s plan, most of the population is expected to be vaccinated by this summer.
Dr. Fisk explained how the vaccines will be administered at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
He said a dozen or so staff members will administer the vaccine at one time in a large, dedicated space with favorable air handling features and room for social distancing. He said people will be observed for 15 minutes in case of any adverse reactions to the vaccine.
The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at 94 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit, and Dr. Fisk said Cottage has a big freezer that can keep tens of thousands of doses at that temperature. In addition, Cottage has multiple backup freezers.
“Once you take it out of the freezer, you have a six-hour window from the time it is brought up to room temperature to administer it,” he said. “It comes as a powder, and it has to be mixed and diluted into the appropriate syringe. It has to be handled in a special process, but it’s not unusual for a vaccine.”
As the Pfizer doses are transported to Santa Barbara County, they are stored in a stable shipping container that resembles a pizza box, Dr. Ansorg said. “The container is filled with dry ice and a measuring device that can monitor the temperature.”
Dr. Ansorg said he was relieved to see Pfizer’s data demonstrating that the vaccine is safe.