Golden Triangle hospitals will begin receiving shipments of COVID-19 vaccine as early as Monday, according to officials from area hospitals.
Both Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle in Columbus and OCH Regional Medical Center in Starkville are set to receive 500 doses and 100 doses, respectively, of the Moderna vaccine from Mississippi State Department of Health, which is shipping Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to hospitals throughout the state. North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo — which has a satellite location in West Point — received its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday.
While the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use last week, the Moderna vaccine is scheduled to go before an FDA advisory panel today. The panel will vote on whether to approve it for emergency use.
That’s not quite the same thing as outright approving the vaccine, said Baptist Director of Pharmacy Eli Hilton, since the FDA’s policies for approving drugs take a long time. Instead, it means the FDA has determined the benefits to releasing the vaccine outweigh the risk of waiting to go through the entire approval process.
“That’s not to say that the medication or the vaccine wasn’t studied rigorously,” Hilton said. “Actually a lot of work went into this vaccine, more than probably has ever been done before.”
The major difference between the two vaccines is Pfizer’s must be stored in sub-zero temperatures, whereas Moderna’s can be stored in a regular freezer, Hilton said. Both showed efficacy of more than 90 percent during clinical trials.
Initially, both vaccines will only be available for health care workers and hospital staff in close contact with COVID-19 patients.
“The plan is to offer it to 100 percent of our employees,” Baptist’s Employee Health Nurse Johnny Judson said. “How soon that will happen will depend on the schedule of us receiving (the vaccine). Initially, because we’re only getting 500 doses (of Moderna’s) and we have a lot more employees than that, we’re going to prioritize it to the nurses that have direct patient care for those COVID patients, like our ER (emergency room) patients, our critical care patients.”
That includes not just doctors and nurses, but other staff like housekeepers and ambulance personnel who come into direct contact with COVID-19, Judson said.
The same goes for OCH and North Mississippi Health Services, which runs NMMC-West Point. Both hospitals use a tier system to determine health care workers who have the most exposure to the virus and will therefore receive the vaccine first.
“We have (three) tiers related to how much COVID exposure employees have,” OCH Quality Control Coordinator and Patient Safety Officer Amy Loggins said in a text message to The Dispatch.
That first tier includes staff from the ER, intensive care unit, emergency medical services and pulmonology clinic, among others.
“If we haven’t given all the shots out after offering it then, we begin to offer it to the (second) tier,” Loggins said.
Judson said the idea is to provide a defense for individuals with the highest risk of constantly coming in contact with the virus.
“That’s the only way you’re going to get (the virus) under control,” he said. “If you can target them first and then (spread) it out to everyone else, that’s just kind of natural. It’s the same process they use every year with the flu vaccine, especially in times of shortages. They always target the at-risk people first.”
Hospitals not requiring staff to vaccinate
However, none of the three hospitals will require staff to be vaccinated.
“(MSDH) … is not making it a requirement at this time for clinical staff to receive the shot,” OCH Director of Marketing and Public Relations Mary Kathryn Kight said.
She added that hospital administration believes it should be a personal health choice for staff to make with their own doctors, especially since the vaccines are new and still being studied.
Judson said the same is the case at Baptist.
“What we’re trying to do is educate our employees about the vaccine and let them make a decision based on that,” he said.
Some health care workers throughout the state have already received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs was the first person in Mississippi to receive it on Tuesday, and other doctors received the vaccine during a special event in Ridgeland on Wednesday, including Dr. Emily Landrum of Starkville.
Landrum said she was one of several doctors who the Mississippi State Medical Association and MSDH reached out to about receiving the vaccine early in an event meant to help educate the public about the vaccine.
“A lot of us … have been talking about ways to try and educate the public and try to decrease some of the hesitancy about getting the vaccine,” said Landrum, who runs the Family Health Clinic in Starkville. “So we started talking about doing live videos and that kind of thing just to show us getting the vaccine.”
How the vaccine works
Landrum said the COVID-19 vaccines are generating more questions and curiosity from the public than typical vaccines that have been around for years.
“This one in particular, being that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, has the primary goal of trying to prevent the really severe cases so that we can decrease the number of patients who require hospitalization and kind of decrease the burden that is occurring in the health care system as a whole,” she said. “Obviously we want people to get it to prevent as many infections as we can, but the more we can prevent serious complications and the severity of the disease, we hope that we can decrease that burden and then hopefully prevent people from having some of the longer term complications that they can get after having COVID.”
Both vaccines are administered in two doses, Judson said, which patients will receive 21-28 days apart, depending on the vaccine (21 days for Pfizer, 28 days for Moderna).
He said the most common side effects are typically the same side effects seen with most shots, such as soreness at the injection site, muscle aches and possibly a low-grade fever.
Landrum, who spoke to The Dispatch about three hours after receiving her first dose of the vaccine, compared it to the flu shot.
“Obviously a needle in your arm hurts just a little when you get it, but I would say very comparable to the flu shot or other vaccines that we get,” she said. “I’ll occasionally feel a little twinge of soreness on my arm where I got it, but it’s not hurting or aching on a constant basis by any means.”
OCH has published a list of frequently asked questions and answers about the vaccine to its website and social media pages, in which it says the vaccines will hopefully begin to be available to the general public in the spring. Landrum said by the time that happens, enough health care and long-term care facility workers will have received it that the general public will know what to expect.
All the health care workers The Dispatch talked to emphasized receiving a vaccine does not mean individuals shouldn’t still wear masks, wash their hands and stay socially distant in order to curb the spread of the virus.
“I just want to encourage the general public to listen to people like the CDC and Mississippi State Department of Health and their physician when they say to wear the mask … to not gather in crowds, to wash their hands,” Judson said. “Just do the right thing. We’re in this together, and that’s the only way we’re going to control this together.”
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