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Vaccine coming this week for area hospital workers

  • Baystate Health announced Tuesday that its initial shipment of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which included just 1,950 doses, had arrived and was placed in ultra-cold storage. The hospital system includes Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, pictured. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton will be the site of the first COVID-19 inoculation for a front-line health worker in Hampshire County. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2020 4:22:25 PM

The first COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers in the Pioneer Valley were administered at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield on Wednesday, with Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton beginning to give shots Thursday, starting at 12:45 p.m. with Chief of Emergency Medicine Dr. Robert Redwood.

With no anxiety or nervousness, Redwood said he has only appreciation at becoming one of the first hospital workers in the Pioneer Valley to receive immunity from the viral respiratory illness.

“Excited, without question,” Redwood said, about receiving the Pfizer vaccine, which he calls a golden opportunity to prevent a deadly disease. “To me, it’s a way to protect my patients, my family and ultimately my community.”

Baystate Health announced Tuesday that its initial shipment of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which included just 1,950 doses, arrived at the site and was immediately placed in ultra-cold storage. The hospital system, which has nearly 12,000 employees, consists of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer and Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield.

Cooley Dickinson expected its first delivery of the same vaccine to arrive Wednesday from Mass General Brigham in Boston. As one of 12 organizations across the hospital system, Cooley Dickinson is receiving the vaccine based on its size and workforce. The system is getting 8,775 doses.

Redwood said though the turnaround on creating the vaccine was quick, the process received a high level of scrutiny and the scientific community has full trust in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decisions.

“I’m just really impressed with the timeline,” Redwood said. “To be able to achieve this is a testament to modern science, honestly.”

Emergency department staff and intensive care unit employees are among the front-line health care workers at Cooley Dickinson who will be getting first doses this week, as they often care directly for COVID-19 patients. These vaccinations will take place in a large room at the hospital to maintain social distance and monitor those who receive it.

At Baystate Health, similar priorities for workers are being followed. The vaccine will be distributed to workers based on their relative risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. That risk is based on the community prevalence, local transmission rates, type of work unit and patient volumes in specific locations.

Both hospitals are cautioning, though, that the arrival of the vaccine doesn’t mean the pandemic is ending, and that significant dangers still lie ahead.

“This means light at the end of the tunnel for everyone, but it’s a long way to go to get to the end of that tunnel,” said Dr. Joanne Levin, medical director of infection prevention at Cooley Dickinson. “This is the first step of many months before we see a change in society.”

Wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing and not gathering in large groups will remain important to stem the tide of infection.

“We will continue to have illness and death happening during the vaccination process,” Levin said.

Second vaccine

As hospitals around the country began dispensing COVID-19 shots to their workers Tuesday, a second vaccine moved to the cusp of government authorization.

A day after the rollout of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus shots, the FDA said its preliminary analysis confirmed the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health. A panel of outside experts is expected to recommend the formula on Thursday, with the FDA’s green light coming soon thereafter.

The Moderna vaccine uses the same technology as Pfizer-BioNTech’s and showed similarly strong protection against COVID-19, but is easier to handle because it does not need to be kept in the deep freeze at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius).

Dr. Armando Paez, chief of Baystate Health’s Infectious Disease Division, said in a statement that the hope is the vaccines can bring normalcy sometime later in 2021, depending on how many individuals get vaccinated and the threshold necessary to achieve so-called herd immunity.

“We expect that at least in the short term, people will still need to continue to wear masks and follow social distancing,” Paez said. “While the vaccine is shown to be very effective in preventing symptomatic infection, it is not 100 percent and is still unclear how much it can prevent asymptomatic infection that allows disease transmission.”

After health care workers, the first phase of vaccinations will go to long-term care workers, followed by police officers, firefighters and home-based health workers, according to the state’s distribution plan. In the second phase, residents with two or more chronic illnesses and essential workers such as teachers will be offered vaccinations. After that will come adults who are 65 and older and individuals with one co-morbidity that places them at higher risk for contracting COVID-19. The vaccine will be available to the general public beginning in April.

Still, Paez is encouraged, despite the current surge in cases, that the availability of vaccine will help those vulnerable populations at risk of severe infection and death from COVID-19.

“There are still deaths occurring attributed to COVID-19 in Massachusetts, up to 60 in one day recently, although the cumulative deaths are not as high as during the first surge,” Paez said.

Levin, too, said that compared to the spring, when nursing home residents comprised a significant portion of those hospitalized, fewer are dying now, but there can still be significant impacts from the virus and there are many unknowns about how it affects people, both young and old.

“It’s a nasty disease, not to be taken lightly,” Redwood said.

Balancing the good news on the vaccine front with the worries about how COVID-19 transmission may rise during the cold weather months is essential, Levin said.

“It’s not over yet,” she said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com

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