Coming in cold
Pfizer is sending millions of dose of its vaccine across the country as a program to combat coronavirus quickly ramps up. Photo courtesy Pfizer

The first set of nearly 6,000 COVID-19 vaccines is set to arrive in San Mateo County on Tuesday, packed into sub-zero freezers and headed to hospitals countywide.

Distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration late last week, is being led by individual states, which are relying on counties to provide information about health care facilities and regional needs.

County Health Chief Louise Rogers said at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting that the first phase of shipments of the vaccine should cover 24,000 of the 38,000 health care workers in the county. The vaccine will get to residents through hospitals, pharmacies and clinics.

“It is understood that health care providers and health care systems across the nation will all play the roles of actually immunizing medical staff and immunizing patients,” Rogers said.

In line with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the county will target high-risk health care workers and patients for the first rounds of distribution. In later phases, when more of the vaccine has been made available, the county’s role will shift to targeting outreach and distribution to hard-to-reach populations.

Just under 1,000 doses are headed for Seton Medical Center in Daly City and Seton Coastside in Moss Beach this week, where patients and staff at skilled nursing facilities, post acute care beds and geriatric beds will get first dibs, Seton CEO Anthony Armada said. Patients’ vaccines will be administered bedside, and employees will receive theirs at the facility’s current testing site. The first shipment won’t come close to covering every patient or employee in the Seton network. Armada was clear that no one will be required to take the vaccine.

“Not everyone will want the vaccine right off the bat, so there is a choice to make,” Armada said. “But we don't have enough vaccines for all our health care workers and patients in post acute care.”

Armada said Seton is prepared with enough freezer capacity to store the doses and the infrastructure to track every dose that is given out, both to make sure the vaccines are distributed and to be able to follow up for the second dose. He said hospitals have been instructed to use all of their doses and not reserve any for the second round of shots.

The shipment comes as the Bay Area has faced soaring COVID-19 case numbers and dwindling ICU capacity. As of Monday, 10 staffed ICU beds were available countywide. San Mateo Medical Center has also established a surge tent in its parking lot for patients with influenza symptoms who can be brought inside for full treatment if needed.

Armada said on Saturday that two ICU slots were available at Seton Medical Center, but that ICU capacity and staffing availability fluctuate as they are evaluated every 12 hours. The hospital’s biggest constraint to serving more patients isn’t a lack of beds or equipment, but people to staff them. Seton has reached out to traveler agencies, the county and the state for more support.

While vaccination is an important step toward the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials are careful to underscore that the end of the road for precautions related to spreading the disease is still a long way off. There is no known evidence that the vaccine prevents asymptomatic spread of the disease, President of the American Medical Association Susan Bailey said at a press event on Monday. That means masks, social distancing and limiting gatherings will be around for quite some time.

“The verdict is still out on if you can transmit the virus to someone else once you've had the vaccine,” Bailey said.

Armada said Seton hopes to work with the county to become a distribution point when the vaccine is available more widely, at both its Daly City and Moss Beach locations.

“... The rationale for that is we are the only hospital here in northern San Mateo County that services a big geography as well as frankly, the only health care hospital that’s in the coastal communities,” Armada said.

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