COVID-19: The vaccine is here! Now we need to get it out, and into arms

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In a county where as much as 7% of the population work in health settings, how does the vaccine reach everyone who needs it first?

Dr. Julie Vaishampayan

Julie Vaishampayan, MD, MPH, FIDSA is the public health officer for Stanislaus County, California. Here she talks to Science Speaks about challenges in the vaccine rollout’s first phase.

THE EMERGENCY USE AUTHORIZATION of two vaccines against COVID-19 at the end of 2020 was exciting. The vaccines will be key to ending this pandemic and getting our people, our communities and our country back to work, play, learning and all the activities that we miss. In addition, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommendation that health care personnel be vaccinated immediately was critical. As of Friday, the CDC reported 349,664 cases of COVID-19 among health care personnel with 1,202 deaths, and warned those numbers likely fall far short of the real tolls. To provide the care and services, including vaccinating all populations, that will continue to be needed to control a still escalating pandemic, protecting health care personnel promptly will be a first essential step.

But as one of my colleagues put it, with limited new resources for public health systems as they have managed case investigations, contact tracing, sample collection, outbreak surveillance and mitigation and messaging pertaining to the pandemic while maintaining other public health activities over the last nine months, we have two Cadillac vaccines but empty gas tanks.

The CDC estimates the U.S. is home to about 21 million health workers. We have about 40,000 healthcare providers in Stanislaus County; from 6-to-7% of the population work in health care. So that is a lot of people. While hospitals are vaccinating their staffs, many are struggling to stay out of crisis care mode, or are already in crisis care mode, and do not have the ability, time or resources to vaccinate outside their staff. And in our county about two-thirds of the health care workforce work outside of hospitals, in outpatient settings. They include physicians, nurses, advanced practice providers, home health aides and in-home support service staff.

As a public health department we don’t have the resources to vaccinate everyone, and hospitals don’t have resources to spare. With two valuable vaccines now available, we are asking who is going to administer them.

We need everyone who is licensed to administer vaccines to step up. Medical societies can be part of this historic initiative by calling out to their members. But this is just the beginning. More strategic support and more funding on a federal level will be needed to seize the opportunity these new vaccines offer in the months ahead.

Julie Vaishampayan, MD, MPH, FIDSA is the health officer for Stanislaus County, Calif., in the northern San Joaquin Valley, just east of the southern San Francisco Bay area. The county seat is Modesto, and the population is about 562,000. She is board certified in infectious diseases and general preventive medicine/public health. She is the chair of Public Health Committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which produces this blog.

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