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Local health workers first to get COVID-19 vaccinations

Asante and Providence health care workers received the Rogue Valley’s first COVID-19 shots on Friday — a major step forward in defeating the virus that has caused death and economic havoc across the globe.

“This is an exciting time. We know that COVID-19 vaccines have shown to be 95% effective. They’ve undergone rigorous testing. The vaccine arriving in Oregon gives us hope. It’s hope that the pandemic will end,” said Holly Nickerson, director of quality for Asante.

Although light is visible at the end of the tunnel, Nickerson said now is not the time for people to let down their guard. The Rogue Valley and nation are in the midst of a COVID-19 surge that is pushing health care workers to the limit and straining hospital capacity.

“Please continue to physical distance, wear a mask, wash your hands and avoid gathering,” Nickerson said, adding she knows that is a tough request when people are used to gathering with friends and family for the holidays.

Asante’s network includes Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, Ashland Community Hospital and the Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass.

On Thursday, it received a shipment of 975 of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccinations that require ultra-cold storage.

That shipment will provide shots for less than 15% of Asante’s workforce, Nickerson said.

Asante expects another shipment of 975 vaccinations next week.

That won’t be enough vaccine to give shots to all of Asante’s frontline health care workers in the first few weeks, said Dr. Courtney Wilson, an emergency department physician and vice president of medical affairs for Rogue Regional Medical Center.

Asante created a multi-disciplinary committee to decide who gets the vaccinations first, she said.

The first shots will go to people who work in high-risk areas around people with known or suspected COVID-19, Wilson said.

Those workers include EMS providers, phlebotomists who collect COVID-19 test swabs, X-ray technicians, janitors, nurses, doctors and others who could be exposed to the virus, she said.

As more vaccine arrives, Asante will expand eligibility to cover remaining hospital staff, and then expand into outpatient treatment areas and administrative roles, Wilson said.

“Now that the vaccine and protection are at hand, it’s even more apparent how brave and self-sacrificing our caregivers have been,” she said. “We want to acknowledge and thank from the bottom of our hearts all frontline and essential workers for their dedication, courage, strength and service. This is a time of hope for all of us.”

Providence Medford Medical Center celebrated getting its first shipment of 975 Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses Thursday with a blessing ceremony. Like Asante, Providence started vaccinating at-risk workers Friday.

The vaccines mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic, said Lisa Vance, chief executive of Providence — Oregon.

“I’m so excited to see this for our caregivers who’ve been fighting this terrible thing for nine months. And I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see that the vaccine’s here,” she said.

Oregon is prioritizing people who work in health care for the first vaccines, plus staff and residents of long-term care facilities. Care facilities and senior citizens have been especially hard hit by serious complications and deaths from the virus.

Oregon’s plan is to have major pharmacy chains coordinate with long-term care facilities for the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines. The Oregon Health Authority expects those vaccinations to start next week.

The second wave of vaccinations will be for essential workers, including teachers, bus drivers, food processors and other workers who keep society open and the economy moving, OHA said.

The third wave of vaccinations is earmarked for people with underlying health conditions and people older than 65, OHA said.

OHA expects the second and third waves of vaccinations will be finished by late spring, depending on the availability of vaccines.

Vaccinating the general public will start after those initial vaccinations.

Pfizer’s vaccine, which requires ultra-cold storage, received emergency use authorization Dec. 11 from the Food and Drug Administration.

A panel of independent experts voted Thursday to recommend FDA authorization of a vaccine by the company Moderna.

Moderna has said that its vaccine needs to be frozen too, but only at minus 20 degrees Celsius, more like a regular freezer, making it more useful for rural communities that don’t have ultra-cold freezers needed for the Pfizer vaccine. More vaccines could become available as they win FDA approval.

Clinical trials showed the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both about 95% effective at preventing COVID-19.

Britain authorized vaccinations ahead of the United States and has seen some health care workers who are prone to severe allergic reactions experience reactions from the vaccine.

At Asante, workers who get shots will be observed for serious side effects for 15-30 minutes, Nickerson said.

The Pfizer vaccine requires a second shot three weeks after the first. Workers will be scheduled for both a first and second shot, Nickerson said.

Second Moderna shots come 28 days after the first shots.

Asante surveyed its staff and found about 60% want to get vaccinated. Another portion want more information about the vaccine, Nickerson said.

Those views are similar to nationwide polls that show many people want to see the real-world effects of widespread vaccination before they bare their arms.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Monday found eight in 10 Americans are willing to get vaccinated, with 40% saying they want the vaccine as soon as possible and 44% saying they would wait a bit before getting it.

Only 15% said they would refuse the vaccine entirely, ABC News reported.

Experts say about 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Wilson said Asante is dedicated to educating people about the vaccine and how it works.

“The vaccine has gone through significant testing and validation,” she said. “I think one of the things that may be most reassuring for people is to understand that this vaccine does not use any live, attenuated virus. So you cannot get sick from the vaccine.”

A live attenuated virus is a weakened virus that stimulates an immune response.

Wilson said some people who participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials reported symptoms such as fatigue, headache, swollen lymph nodes and arm soreness.

Those side effects are common with many vaccines as the body’s immune system revs up.

“These are all signs that your body is actually mounting an immune response. Those are signs that your body has identified a foreign invader and is doing its job in making antibodies,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Dr. Neha Garg of Providence Medford Medical Center gets vaccinated Friday as part of the first vaccinations in the Rogue Valley.{ } Photo courtesy of Providence
Providence Medford Medical Center Pharmacy Director Kit Thomson puts Pfizer vaccine in a freezer Thursday. Photo courtesy of Providence