Last Tuesday, UVA hospital’s ICU director Taison Bell became one of the first people in Charlottesville to receive the newly approved coronavirus vaccine. It was a moment of “mixed emotions,” says Bell, who has worked with COVID patients throughout the crisis.
“It was definitely a good feeling to finally have something that can potentially protect you and your family from COVID-19, but also bittersweet,” he says. “In order to get to this point, so many hundreds of thousands of people have died…It was just ironic that the key to getting out of this was in this tiny little vial.”
Nearly one year after the first coronavirus cases were reported in the U.S., the vaccine is finally available. Shortly after the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use on December 11, it was sent to hospitals across the country, including here in Charlottesville.
Last Tuesday, UVA hospital received 3,000 doses of the vaccine. The day before, Sentara, which runs Martha Jefferson, received 11,700 doses to be shared among multiple facilities. Both hospitals immediately began vaccinating doctors, nurses, and other staff who come in direct contact with coronavirus patients in the COVID-19 unit or the emergency department.
Once these high-risk employees are vaccinated—and the two health care systems receive additional shipments—the shot will be available to essential hospital workers, then to the rest of the staff, with priority placed on those who are medically vulnerable.
Local long-term care facilities will be able to receive on-site vaccination services from pharmacies, including Walgreens and CVS.
On Friday, the Moderna vaccine was also approved by the FDA, and shipped to hospitals two days later.
Both vaccines—currently available only to adults—have over 95 percent effective rates, and require two doses in order to be fully effective. Pfizer’s doses must be spaced out by 21 days, while Moderna’s require a 28-day wait.
Bell says he felt fine after receiving the shot, despite the mild discomfort from the needle. However, recipients may experience mild side effects, including fatigue, chills, body aches, or headaches.
While the long-term effects of the vaccine are still unknown, science and safety were not “cut short” in the approval process, explains Bell.
“[It] is based on a platform called messenger RNA technology, which is novel in the sense that it hasn’t been used in a licensed vaccine before—but the actual science and study behind it has been going on for more than a decade,” he says. “I have no doubt [that] it’s safe.”
mRNA ultimately protects recipients from developing symptoms of the virus. It has yet to be determined if either vaccine can completely prevent COVID-19 infections.
The $9 billion government investment into the vaccine also expedited its development and distribution, explains Bell. And as COVID cases continue to spike around the country, researchers had little trouble finding people infected with the virus who were willing to participate in trials, which can be a challenge when developing vaccines for different diseases.
According to the Thomas Jefferson Health District’s Emergency Manager Jessica Coughlin, the next stages of vaccine distribution will likely take several months to get through.
After health care employees, essential workers—including teachers, paramedics, bus drivers, and service workers—will be next in line for the shot, along with high-risk populations. The Centers for Disease Control has released loose guidelines for vaccine distribution priority, but states and hospital systems still have significant control over the specifics of the rollout process.
The vaccine is not expected to be available to the general public until early summer. But with more than 200 coronavirus vaccines still in development across the globe, this timeline may change. Because the development of the vaccine was paid for by the federal government, it will be free to all who decide to get it.
Developing the vaccine is one thing. Convincing people to take it could be a different challenge. America’s long and brutal history of medical racism has left many people in the Black community mistrustful of the coronavirus vaccine, says Bell.
From 1932 to 1972, in the infamous Tuskegee experiment, the U.S. Public Health Service allowed nearly 400 Black men in Alabama with syphilis to go untreated in order to study the full progression of the disease, causing many participants to suffer from blindness, insanity, and other severe health problems. Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, UVA was a hub for eugenic science. Doctors in Virginia sterilized thousands of Black people without their consent from the 1920s to the 1970s.
“The Black community remembers these insults…[They] must be addressed head-on,” says Bell. “It’s not a matter of just saying, ‘Oh, well trust us now.’ Because the same message was given to people back in Tuskegee and the eugenics movement.”
While there is no single solution to this deep-rooted trauma, Bell encourages his colleagues to “recognize these wounds,” and work to heal them by being honest, transparent, and explaining as much as possible. They must also assure concerned patients that Black people have been a part of the research, development, and trials for the vaccine from the very beginning.
Coughlin says primary care physicians will be best-equipped to help people make good choices around the vaccine, and that the health district is encouraging people to “do their research, look at official sources, and speak with their physicians.”