Yakima County’s hospitals are slated to receive the first doses of an emergency-use COVID-19 vaccine this week, with priority going to high-risk health care workers, first responders, and people in long-term care settings.

Mike Hull, director of Virginia Mason Memorial’s pharmacy services, said he expects to receive 1,950 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by Wednesday.

Health care workers who care for COVID-19 patients will be the first to receive the vaccine, Hull said.

Records from the state Department of Health, which sent out the first shipments of the vaccine this week, show a single shipment to Yakima County of 1,950 doses.

The county’s other two hospitals — Astria Sunnyside and Astria Toppenish — did not say definitively whether they were expecting to receive doses this week, but instead referred to state-disseminated information.

The state department announced the first shipments will deliver 62,400 doses of the vaccine to 17 facilities in 13 counties. About half of the doses will go to hospitals across the state.

People included in Phase 1A of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution include high-risk workers in health care settings and high-risk first responders to ensure that the state’s medical systems can respond to residents.

Staff and residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other community-based congregate living arrangements will also get priority, Astria said Monday.

The state plans to ship additional vaccine doses by the end of next week, with regular shipments starting in January.

A recap of the Pfizer vaccine

Testing of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine began on nonhuman animals and then moved onto human clinical trials.

Dr. Pete Rutherford, the CEO of Confluence Health, was injected as part of one of those clinical trials. He doesn’t know yet whether he received the vaccine or a placebo, but was part of a weekly update hosted Monday by the Washington State Hospital Association.

Rutherford said the Pfizer vaccine went through three rounds of clinical tests. The first involved a few patients, the second included more, and the third round tested about 40,000 people from diverse age and ethnicity groups. 

The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Friday, Dec. 12. The “emergency use” classification allows the use of unapproved medical products in emergencies to diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions.

Scientists say the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two doses administered 21 days apart, is 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection starting seven days after the second dose. 

Recipients have not shown any major side effects, although some have reported tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever.

The vaccine must be stored at temperatures of minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit. It remains viable for up to six months in storage, according to information from the state Department of Health.

Vaccine updates

The state’s first shipments consisted of allotments of 975, 1,950 or 3,700 doses per location.

Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said the ultra cold storage required by the vaccine could be problematic, particularly for rural areas that may not have access to that equipment, she added.

Yakima County has three ultra-cold storage facilities, according to the Yakima Health District, which has approved — or is in the process of approving — six agencies to distribute the vaccine.

Those agencies are the county’s three hospitals, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, Community Health of Central Washington and Neighborhood Health Services.

The state expects to vaccinate up to 400,000 people by the end of the month via additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine and an anticipated 183,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, the application of which is set for review Dec. 17, upon approval.

Precautions are still protocol

Rutherford said nurses are excited to be vaccinated, but they’re also concerned that the vaccine’s arrival will result in people abandoning recommended health protocols. He emphasized that the COVID vaccines were a “light at the end of the tunnel,” but not permission to drop pandemic precautions.

“This is a start, but it is by no means an end,” Rutherford said.

Social distancing, masking, washing and sanitizing hands frequently, staying home if ill, and limiting gatherings with people outside of households is still critical to people’s safety and hospital capacity, Sauer said.

“We remain really concerned about hospital capacity. Hospitals are really full,” Sauer said. “If you want to do one thing to help your health care workers, don’t get sick.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.

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