Vaccines will be one of our most important tools in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and early indicators give us a reason for hope.
Vaccines authorized for use in the United States have exceptionally high effective rates. They also have proven to be highly effective in preventing severe illness resulting in hospitalizations or death due to COVID-19.
“This is the light at the end of the tunnel that we have all been waiting for. If a significant number of people in our community get vaccinated, it really offers the opportunity to slow the spread of the disease, decrease how sick people get with it and lower the death rate from COVID-19,” said Stephen Hippler, MD, chief clinical officer of OSF HealthCare.
But giving vaccines to huge numbers of people presents a new set of challenges.
Demand for vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19 far outweighs the supply. And while public health agencies and health systems like OSF are doing everything possible to make vaccines available in their communities, they face an enormous task in accomplishing this goal.
We expect that most Americans will have the opportunity to get the vaccine this year, but many of us will have to wait weeks or months for a chance to be vaccinated. Until then, Dr. Hippler and others urge you to be patient and continue following public health guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Federal, state and local rules
Distributing COVID-19 vaccines is unique because different levels of government have different responsibilities.
The federal government purchased the vaccines from the manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also issued nationwide guidance for who is most at risk and should be prioritized in vaccination plans.
The federal government sends a certain amount of vaccine to each state, which is responsible for deciding where, how and to whom vaccines should go. This includes detailed plans about who is eligible to receive vaccines during each phase of distribution.
The state then gives vaccines to local health departments for use in individual counties and communities.
Because of this system, vaccine availability varies state by state and county by county.
Supply vs. demand
But even with a detailed plan for this phased approach, each phase includes tens of thousands of people in each state. And because of the storage requirements for the vaccine, hospitals and health departments can’t keep large stockpiles on hand.
“The amount of vaccine we’re getting is very small compared to the number of patients in our communities. The supplies we’ve gotten aren’t enough to vaccinate even 3-4% of our eligible patients,” Dr. Hippler said.
“This is a huge group of patients, for which there is just not enough vaccine available today.”
That doesn’t mean those people won’t receive a vaccine – it just means they can’t all receive one right away.
While the goal is to offer a COVID-19 vaccine to everyone who is eligible as soon as possible, we also know this is a long process that will require patience for those who aren’t included in the first phases.
“On one hand, you may have to wait, but on the other hand, be thankful that we live in the U.S. and will have the opportunity to be vaccinated this year. It won’t be as soon as everybody wants, but it is coming,” Dr. Hippler said.
All states, including Illinois and Michigan, have begun vaccinating their residents. OSF HealthCare began vaccinating its workforce in December 2020 and offering vaccines to patients in January 2021, following guidance from state and federal public health agencies about whom to vaccinate first.
“We have heard consistently, all along, that this is going to take time and that the national strategy is to give it to those at highest risk first,” Dr. Hippler said.
That includes those who are at highest risk of being exposed while at work – such as health care workers and other essential workers – as well as those at highest risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19 based on medical risk factors.
One of the greatest risk factors for complications from COVID-19 is age, which is why people 65 and over are among the first to be offered the vaccine.
But that limited age group includes almost 50 million Americans. Even among those who are in this prioritized group, all can’t be offered the vaccine right away. Some will have to wait longer than others.
OSF HealthCare is following CDC-based recommendations to prioritize patients with certain medical conditions that put them at highest risk. This includes:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Compromised immune system (due to illness or medical treatment, such as chemotherapy)
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
Those with multiple risk conditions are among the first patients OSF is reaching out to.
A path forward
“If you think about how the vaccine has been rolled out, it’s all been to avoid deaths and overwhelming our health care systems,” Dr. Hippler said.
By reducing those threats, we can begin to return to more normal activities – although precautions like wearing a mask and physical distancing will continue to be extremely important.
As the vaccine supply increases, the vaccine will be made available to more and more people, as well as in more locations.
In the early phases of vaccination, local health departments and select health systems, such as OSF, are offering vaccines to those in the priority groups including healthcare workers, long term care residents, those who are age 65 and older and essential workers, such as those who work in dental offices and grocery stores. Eventually, vaccines will be available to more people and in more locations, including retail pharmacies.
Dr. Hippler urges those interested in getting a vaccine to pay careful attention to what their local health department is doing so they can see all of the options available to them.
“The hope is that as more people get vaccinated, the COVID-19 cases in our communities will start to decrease. We can start to open up our communities and businesses a little bit more, but still with protections in place, just to be safe until we know for sure the effects of the vaccine on transmission,” Dr. Hippler said.