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Front-line health care workers at five large hospitals will be the first people in Utah to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, officials for those hospitals confirmed Thursday.
The five are University of Utah Hospital, and the Intermountain Healthcare-run Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah Valley Hospital in Provo and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.
Each hospital is expecting “several thousand” doses of the first vaccine, developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech, said Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer, chief of infection prevention at University of Utah Health. Neither Mayer nor her counterpart at Intermountain, Dr. Kristin Dascomb, would specify exactly how many doses each hospital would receive.
Tom Hudachko, a Utah Department of Health spokesman, said Utah is expected to get 1% of the vaccines produced nationally. According to a recent Washington Post report, Pfizer is expected to have 6.4 million doses available in the first batch — meaning Utah would get around 64,000.
Under the state’s distribution plan, people at higher risk of getting sicker from COVID-19 will start receiving the vaccine from February through May. The general public is expected to get the vaccine by June or July.
Gov. Gary Herbert, speaking Thursday at his weekly COVID-19 news briefing, said he hopes more vaccines could arrive even sooner.
“We hopefully will have enough vaccines that by springtime — March, April, May of this year — everybody who wants to have a vaccine will be able to have a vaccine,” he said. “That’s going to help us slow the spread and give us relief, and start to help us recover and have more normal socialization.”
The first batch of vaccines will be distributed to the five Utah hospitals, so they can be given out as soon as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves an emergency use authorization of the vaccine — which is expected the week of Dec. 14.
The five hospitals were chosen, Dascomb said, because they are handling a large number of the state’s COVID-19 patients and because they have the supercold freezers needed to store the Pfizer vaccine at temperatures of 80 below zero Celsius.
The Pfizer product is “a very fragile and unstable virus vaccine, and has to be handled very carefully,” Mayer said. “We’ve got the minus-80 freezers. We’ve got the backups to the backups.”
The health department estimates there are about 126,000 health care workers in Utah, Hudachko said. The state doesn’t know how many of those would receive the first batch of vaccines.
Those front-line workers include doctors and nurses who treat COVID-19 patients, specialists at high-risk of exposure (such as anesthesiologists), and for hospital housekeepers who come in contact with infected materials.
Housekeepers, Mayer said, “have been the hardest hit during this pandemic.”
Mayer said University Hospital expects to dole out between 500 and 750 doses a day, and Dascomb said the four Intermountain hospitals will be working on a similar schedule. They said the hospitals would work to schedule vaccinations so workers at the same hospital units weren’t all treated the same day — and that the shots would be given so workers could take a day or two off if they develop side effects.
The trial studies for the Pfizer vaccine and a second vaccine made by Moderna, expected to get FDA approval in late December, have shown few side effects, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious disease at University of Utah Health. That doesn’t mean side effects won’t show up when thousands and millions of people get the vaccines, he said.
“We’ll be keeping very close eyes on the long-term safety,” Pavia said. “It’s a relatively new vaccine, and we don’t have years of experience with it.”
Pavia noted that the odds of serious side effects are one in thousands, while the odds of dying if one is infected with the coronavirus is 1 in 150. “The benefits of preventing the disease,” he said, “will outweigh the risks of taking the vaccine.”
Health care workers at Intermountain and University of Utah Health won’t be required to take the vaccine, officials at both hospital systems said.
Workers will be presented with the data, “so they can make an informed choice,” said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of Intermountain’s community health and prevention department.
Herbert said the state government has no plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccines when they become available to the public.
“We think that most of the people in Utah will want to have one,” Herbert said, “to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
Businesses, Herbert said, likely could require their employees to get vaccinated. “It would be entirely within their abilities, their constitutional rights as an employer, to say, ‘If you’re going to come to work for me, I want to make sure you have the vaccine, so we don’t get people sick here on the job.’ ”
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, taken weeks apart. The plan is to distribute all the Pfizer doses immediately, with more shipments expected to arrive in the coming weeks to cover the second dose.
Mayer said the health department has assured the hospitals that they will receive enough vaccines to cover the second doses.
Pavia noted that the vaccine landscape is constantly changing. A third vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, is in clinical trials. And both Pfizer and Moderna, he said, are starting trials for 12- to 17-year-olds.
“The distribution is complex, and it’s evolving,” Pavia said. “By the time spring rolls around, we may have three or four vaccines.”