BJC Vaccine Storage Locker

Kristen Helton, BJC pharmacy manager, said the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine requires super-cold storage because it’s composed of a new technology called mRNA, that requires the vaccine to remain frozen to ensure stability. She said mRNA technology helps the body give immune response.

Now that the Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee has recommended Emergency Use Authorization for Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. (December 10), acceptance of that recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration is considered imminent. Health care systems, pharmacies, National Guards and all involved in logistics are primed for distributing the vaccine once the final FDA go-ahead is given.

In the St. Louis area, BJC HealthCare says it will be the first hospital system to distribute the Pfizer vaccine to healthcare workers, starting with those directly involved in patient care.

“We have heard we will receive shipments of vaccine in the middle of next week,” Dr. Clay Dunagan, infectious disease specialist at BJC HealthCare and professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, said. “We hope to be vaccinating people within the next 10 to 14 days.”

Clay Dunagan

Clay Dunagan, M.D., infectious disease specialist at BJC HealthCare and professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The first individuals who will receive the vaccine upon its approval by the FDA are healthcare workers and individuals at very high risk from the disease, who live in nursing homes. 

“The way we are thinking of healthcare workers are any person who works in healthcare who has potential exposure to a patient in any capacity,” Dunagan said. That includes doctors, nurses, transporters, clergy, environmental service workers who clean rooms, as well as scientists who come in contact with infectious material. “All of those people qualify in this very first wave.” He said those workers will be divided into age groups, and they will work their way down from oldest to the youngest. 

Dunagan said anyone who is a healthcare worker will have an equal chance of getting the vaccine, although employees cannot be forced into taking the two dose-COVID-19 inoculation.

“No, it’s under Emergency Use Authorization. We would never require a healthcare worker or an employee to get a medication, or vaccine or use a product that is under those circumstances,” said Dunagan. “That said, we’ve seen plenty to tell us that this is going to be a safe and effective vaccine, and so, we will strongly recommend people receive the vaccine as soon as it’s offered to them.” 

With the increasing amount of illness, COVID fatigue at work and at home, and heartache from irreplaceable losses due to this coronavirus, Dunagan says with the vaccine, there will eventually be decreases in overall infections.

“Anyone who gets vaccinated is probably going to be protected against any significant illness and severe disease, and if we really start with the highest risk populations, we’ll have, very quickly, an impact on the number of susceptible patients who are at risk to get hospitalized,” Dunagan said.

“The more employees we have vaccinated against the virus, the fewer healthcare workers will have to go out on medical leave because of the coronavirus. Right now, we may have several hundred employees and healthcare workers out on any given day with coronavirus or they had an exposure. This will help us avoid that.”

About the anticipated vaccine, Rich Liekweg, president and CEO of BJC HealthCare said, “I’ve had the privilege to work with 31,000 unbelievable healthcare heroes… This new vaccine gives them hope – gives us hope, that we can get to the end of fighting this pandemic together.”

Another pending Emergency Use Authorization request, this one made by Moderna for its COVID-19 vaccine, will be considered by the FDA Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on December 17.

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