Samaritan Family Health medical director talks potential COVID vaccines | Health Matters

ADAMS — Every patient Dr. Joseph F. Wetterhahn has seen in the last few days has asked him the same question: When can I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

While he’s still unable to answer that question, he expects guidance will come within the next few weeks on when and how vaccines will be distributed.

Dr. Wetterhahn, medical director of the Samaritan Family Health Network, said when the time comes for him to receive a vaccine as a frontline medical worker, he will receive it without hesitation.

“I’m not concerned about receiving it, I’m more concerned about people not receiving it and getting sick than I am people having a problem from the vaccine,” he said.

Two large manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna, have announced high efficacy rates in their clinical trials of potential COVID vaccines.

Pfizer said its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective in final clinical trial results from Phase 3 data from a 44,000 participant clinical trial, an even better efficacy rate than previously reported. Preliminary data report from Moderna also showed high rate of effectiveness at 94.5% in its own Phase 3 trial of its vaccine candidate.

“With any time that there is anything brought to market under an emergency use authorization, there’s very rigorous monitoring for potential side effects, or adverse events, and they will do that,” Dr. Wetterhahn said. “But so far, it certainly looks like it’s a very safe vaccine, and it’s surprisingly effective. It’s very hard to get a 90 percent plus effectiveness out of any vaccine — much better than what we were hoping for.”

Dr. Wetterhahn explained that the two vaccines do not contain the virus, either activated or inactivated, just a protein coat stripped away that’s then used to create the vaccine, so those vaccinated cannot contract COVID from the vaccine.

Though a concrete timeframe is still currently unknown, Dr. Wetterhahn expects frontline workers in high incidence areas may be able to be vaccinated sometime within the next month, with those who are high risk patients probably able to receive their vaccines sometime in January.

“There’s going to be logistics to how they are distributed and the temperatures they’re stored at, but there are people who are planning how to do that,” Dr. Wetterhahn said. “New York state already has a plan in place, you can find it on the Department of Health website, which is going to go to areas that have an outbreak first, that makes sense.

“I think that we will be getting it to the right people at the right time,” he added.

For those who expect to rely on herd immunity, Dr. Wetterhahn pointed out that herd immunity has never occurred with a viral disease in our population history, and herd immunity for COVID will likely not come about without an aggressive vaccination effort. If we have that, and enough people are willing to be vaccinated, then the spread can be suppressed to the point where the virus extinguishes itself. He said experts are thinking by the third quarter of next year — summer 2021 — we could be returning toward “normal” life.

Even after a vaccine has been distributed, Dr. Wetterhahn said masking, distancing and hand sanitizing will need to continue because even if a vaccine is 90% effective, that still means that one in 10 people who get vaccinated have the potential to get sick or transmit the virus to other people.

“People do have to take this virus very seriously,” he said. “We’ve had a quarter of a million people die in the country already from this, we’re having deaths in this region which we didn’t have previously. … we need to be more vigilant in this area than what we were back in February, March, April.”

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