Orange County set to receive COVID-19 vaccines Wednesday

Orange County expects to receive its doses of COVID-19 vaccines manufactured from Pfizer by Wednesday with frontline hospital workers getting the first shots, officials said Monday.   

"This is the beginning of the end, not the end," said Andrew Noymer, a UC Irvine associate professor of population health and disease prevention, as he stressed that it will be some time before the general population receives the vaccines. 

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"The vaccines are absolutely the best innovation we've had in the pandemic," Noymer said. "And I've been openly skeptical of prior silver bullet solutions, except this one... All those other various schemes to bring the pandemic to heel are not enough, except for the vaccines, which has the potential to be the game-changer we all want it to be but, but it's going to take time to work."  

The general public "needs to understand that it will take a while before they can go back to normal," Noymer said.

The rollout of the vaccines is unprecedented, Noymer said.   

"Polio might be the closest thing," he said of the mid-1950s campaign. "Polio was different, though. That vaccine was approved for 16 and older, so they were not trying to vaccinate every man, woman and child."  

UC Irvine Medical Center Dr. Susan Huang, an infectious diseases professor, said the news of the vaccines is "the only bright light" these days as hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients soar.   

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"We're very fortunate here at UCI. We have surge plans to double our capacity," Huang said.

"Nevertheless, it's a huge impact on staffing ... we can do it, but to do it safely is a big deal... This is an alarming rise (in hospitalizations) that is far in excess of the first wave, and we really need to do everything we can to mitigate the spread (of the virus)." The recent surge is "disheartening and very alarming," but, "there is a palpable enthusiasm about the vaccine. There is hope and a very excited hope that the vaccine that is imminent is here on Wednesday."  

UCI's pharmacists will be the first to handle the medicine. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be reconstituted, so the pharmacists will be charged with thawing it from a deep freeze properly and then distilling it into liquid form for a shot in the arm, Huang said.   

UCI is expecting to receive about 3,000 doses, Huang said. More doses from the similar vaccine from Moderna is expected next week, she added.   

The Food and Drug Administration has to approve the Moderna vaccine, which is expected to be done by the end of the week, Huang said. That vaccine requires cold storage as well, but doesn't need quite the deep freeze the Pfizer vaccine has to have, she said.   

The medical workers who receive the Pfizer vaccine will have to get another shot in three weeks. The Moderna vaccine requires four weeks between the two administrations of the medicine.   

Next in line in the queue is a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, which only requires one dose and does not require the deep-freeze storage. But it's unclear when that could be approved, Huang said.   

Huang anticipates that Pfizer's vaccine, which has shown to be effective 95% of the time, and Moderna, 94% of the time, will be available to the general public by mid-April.   

"The estimated production is expected to be exceedingly high for both companies," Huang said.

"These are sizable companies, which have longstanding logistics on how to move this along and have plenty of investment either through their own funds or government funds to have the capacity to make things happen in a safe and rapid way,"  Huang emphasized that the general public should not worry about getting shots or side effects.   

"The side-effect profile looks good," she said. "We really should be encouraging as many people as possible to get vaccinated. We need 70% (to accept it) for the pandemic to come to an end."   

Huang said the approval of the vaccines has been guided by scientists, not politics. "We really need to put that aside, the concern that this wasn't done in the safest way possible," Huang said. "This met our highest safety standards of the United States... We can really believe these results. They are absolutely a grand slam of results."  

Anyone getting a shot should expect some mild "flu-like" symptoms for a day or two as the body's immune system is essentially taught how to recognize and battle the coronavirus, Huang said.   

"This particular vaccine is not alive," she said. "This is a very safe vaccine. If they feel a little under the weather it's the immune system revving up and producing the antibodies and protections in their body and it is short-lived, a day or two or three at the most."  

The immunity could last at least a year and up to three years, Huang said. It is possible vaccinations may be required annually initially as the virus weakens, Huang said.  "It will end this pandemic if we can get enough people to take this vaccine," she said.   

Orange County CEO Frank Kim dismissed reports that Orange County was expecting to receive the vaccines on Monday. "We were always told it was likely to come this week, but we were never told an exact date," Kim said.

Kim said he was pleased to see COVID-19 shots being administered in Los Angeles Monday because all of the Southern California hospitals are in the same region and it helps the entire area.  "We're happy that our region receives some on Monday, and some are getting them on Tuesday and some on Wednesday," Kim said.

"It's fantastic. We're in it together. It helps our region."  When the doses arrive the county will move quickly to ship them out, Kim said. "By the time we get it we would hope to get all vaccines out of our custody within 24 hours," Kim said. "That is our goal... The minute it comes in we'll be transporting it out." 

Orange County officials are working hard now on a plan for the dissemination of the vaccines to the general public. Anyone getting a shot must be monitored for 15 minutes to watch out for any immediate allergic reactions, Kim said.   

So a large area will be required such as city halls or some of the super sites the county is utilizing to do COVID-19 testing, Kim said.   

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the county will begin an intensive campaign to encourage residents to get shots. "In order for the vaccine to be effective in Orange County we need widespread vaccination," Bartlett said. "We will have a public health campaign just like with face coverings."