Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the first emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines to help slow the spread of Coronavirus.
As of press time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 2,838,225 doses had been distributed, and 556,208 doses have been administered in the U.S.
Since the release of Pfizer and Moderna, some Americans are questioning the vaccinations’ safety and effectiveness. In contrast, others are concerned with how quickly the vaccinations were developed and administered.
In a recent virtual town hall led by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, experts address the development of the vaccination, what to expect, distribution timeline, myths, traveling safety, and the difference between the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines.
The event moderated by dean and professor for the college of medicine at Charles R. Drew University, Dr. Deborah Protrow-Stith, featured the following guest speakers: Los Angeles County health officer, Dr. Muntu Davis; public health chief science officer, Dr. Paul Simon, and Los Angeles County Department of Public Health division of medical affairs director, Dr. Seira Kurian.
Davis spoke first with an update on hospitalizations and how the COVID-19 surge has impacted residents in Los Angeles County.
“On average, we are losing up to two of our neighbors every hour in Los Angeles County,” he said.
“This surge is putting a tremendous strain on our hospital network and, more importantly, on our frontline healthcare workers who are doing everything they can to save lives under extraordinary conditions.
Davis says that the number of COVID-related hospitalizations is expected to increase with fewer beds available in the ICU.
The second speaker, Simon, spoke on the vaccination trials and safety concerns.
Pfizer Vaccine vs. Moderna Vaccine
“The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was studied in a clinical trial of more than 4,000 volunteers and is found to be 95 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infections,” said Simon.
“The trial included ages 16-years-old and older and is found to be effective across all age groups, all racial and ethnic groups, and both men and women.”
According to Simon, the trial results revealed that many people who are vaccinated develop mild to moderate symptoms for up to several days. These symptoms include soreness at the site of injection, fatigue, muscle aches, and fever.
“These symptoms were not surprising and are similar with many other vaccines,” said Simon.
The second vaccine, Moderna, was also 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infection and was not associated with any serious adverse effects. The newly-approved vaccine was tested in adults 18-years-old and older.
What’s the difference between the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines? Both require two doses; however, the amount of time between the second doses varies.
The Pfizer vaccine is administered three weeks apart, while the Moderna vaccine dosage must be administered four weeks apart.
How safe are the vaccines?
“I know some persons may have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine given how rapidly they were developed,” said Simon.
“I want to assure you that although the timeline for developing these vaccines have been greatly condensed, all of the essential steps in the vaccine approval process have been maintained. In addition, three expert panelists of scientists one for the FDA, one for the CDC, and one convened by Governor Newsom and the governors of three other Western states, all completed independent reviews of the data from the Pfizer trial and concluded the vaccine was effective and safe for use.”
Who gets vaccinated first?
The final panelist for the evening, Kurian, explained how people will receive the vaccine.
“Los Angeles County did receive the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine [last week]. This is accounted for over 82,875 doses and are being used to vaccinate health care workers, with the priority being health care workers who are at the highest exposure to COVID-19,” said Kurian.
Phase 1A includes vaccination distribution to residents and healthcare workers at long-term care facilities.
After Phase 1A is completed, Phase 1B will begin and focus on essential workers, followed by Phase 1C, which administers the shot to high-risk groups such as seniors and those with chronic health conditions.
“Plans [are] currently being developed [for] individuals within these broad groupings, [to determine who] will be prioritized and how the vaccines will be delivered to them,” said Kurian.
Question & Answer Segment
More than 500 questions were submitted to the panelist before the town hall. Below is a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions discussed during the meeting.
Q: How will zip code and neighborhood data be used in the distribution?
A: “There are a variety of different factors that are considered in determining who gets the vaccine and how it’s distributed. Prioritizing and understanding which communities are impacted, especially hospitals that are serving vulnerable populations, are part of the calculus we use to determine how to distribute these doses,” said Kurian.
Q: How will I know when the vaccine is available for me?
A: “There will be widespread notices in terms of public information regarding when the vaccine is available and where you can get it,” said Davis. “In the meantime, I would suggest people visit our website publichealth.lacounty.gov [to sign up for our newsletter and receive COVID-19 updates].
Q: Will a vaccine be available for people under the age of 16? What happens if the rest of our family gets vaccinated, but our children don’t?
A: “The current vaccine trials focus just on adolescents and adults, but as these vaccines roll out, there will be continued studies happening. In fact, the trials will be extended to include children and pregnant women to get additional information. When a vaccine is available, children will be prioritized low because they are at a slightly lower risk of infection and complications,” said Simon.
According to Davis, the public health community believes 75-80 percent of the U.S. population will need to be vaccinated for the virus to begin to go away. However, it will take months for the vaccine to be widely available to the public. Until then, public health officials encourage residents to wear a face covering, only travel for essential needs and maintain at least six feet from individuals outside of their household.
“While the arrival of the vaccine offers hope for the future, we are still many months away from having enough people vaccinated to see the COVID-19 virus diminished to a point where we began to see things return to normal,” said Davis.
“[This] means we all have to continue following those personal actions to prevent getting and transmitting COVID-19.”
A recording of the town hall is available on the Los Angeles County Public Health YouTube page.