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Southern Illinois front line hospital workers to get first vaccine

By Renee Trappe
updated: 12/2/2020 3:42 PM

Front line hospital workers in southern Illinois are expected to be first in line for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, when it arrives in Illinois, possibly as early as Dec. 13.

Bart Hagston, public health administrator of the Jackson County Health Department, said as of Monday, Illinois is still in line to receive 85,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the first U.S. drugmaker to distribute their vaccine to the nation.

Illinois initially was promised 400,000 doses in the first wave of distribution and the final number we'll get remains fluid, Hagston said.

From the Illinois Department of Public Health in Springfield, the vaccine doses -- which must remain "ultra cold" at all times, at -70 degrees Celsius or colder -- will be delivered to county health departments throughout Illinois.

If the number of doses each health department gets is based strictly on population, Jackson County would receive slightly fewer than 500 doses, Hagston said. He said it is possible that the IDPH will amend the criteria based on where the COVID-19 hot spots are, or other criteria, by the time the vaccine arrives in Illinois.

He said health departments are planning their distribution networks now, based on an existing priority list -- a list that could change on Tuesday after an emergency meeting called by the Centers for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

As of now, the priority list starts with health care workers, including hospital personnel and nurses at nursing homes; first responders (police, fire, ambulance, etc.); people who work in long-term care facilities; people over 65 or those with chronic health conditions that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19; and other essential workers.

"It's our goal to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible," Hagston said, saying they are asking people to exercise some patience, as the vaccine supply will be limited in the early stages.

"We'll be doing all we can to get the vaccine out the door and into people's arms."

Two shots required

The Pfizer vaccine, like most vaccines currently under development or testing, requires each person to get two shots, spaced by roughly 21 to 28 days, to be vaccinated. And each shot must come from the same drug manufacturer, Hagston added.

Pfizer will be the first out of the gate in mid-December, but the Moderna vaccine is expected to come out by the end of December. Pfizer is saying its second round of distributed vaccine will likely be ready by January.

Keeping the vaccine cold will be critical. In Jackson County, Hagston said their primary route will be to hold vaccine in freezers using dry ice.

"We've worked out a plan with a dry ice supplier," Hagston said. "We're leasing freezers though the same supplier." For security reasons, he declined to specify where the vaccine will be stored, but said there will be off-site backup as well, and generators available in case the power fails.

State eyes 80% rate of vaccination

Hagston said the IDPH has asked local health departments to develop plans where 80% of their population is eventually vaccinated. In southern Illinois, he said, reaching that level of vaccination could be a stretch.

The region is living with an "elevated risk" level of COVID-19 cases, but Hagston worries that residents may let their guard down, "this close to the finish line."

"It should be exactly the opposite," he said. "People should be thinking, I just need to carry on these precautions for a little while longer."

Being vaccinated will be voluntary for most people, Hagston said, but certainly some employers could require it.

"If I'm an employer I might want to give people time off work to get vaccinated," he added. "It might be worth it on the front end."

Hagston said it is generally accepted that most people will want to get vaccinated at some point, but there will be a sizable percent of the population that will be anti-vaccination.

"I don't know what that number is," Hagston said, adding it is important that the efficacy of the vaccines be transparently verified by independent authorities, and that the clinic trials be made public. That, he said, will instill confidence in the vaccines and hopefully convince more people to be vaccinated.

No matter how people rush to get vaccinated, it's important that people understand the virus will not magically disappear by 2021.

"It won't go away overnight; we expect to be dealing with it through most of 2021," Hagston said.