OC healthcare workers could receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as this week.
The OC Health Care Agency said it expects to receive 25,350 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine as soon as Dec. 15 and will begin distributing the vaccine to the area’s 31 hospitals the same day.
“News of a vaccine is a sign of the virus’ last deep breath—a long, deep breath that will take time,” Chad Lefteris, chief executive of UCI Health, told the Business Journal.
“It does create a sense of a light at the end of the tunnel.”
News of the vaccine comes amid a new stay-at-home mandate for the region. Orange County is seeing its highest COVID case rates and hospitalization rates to date.
At-risk healthcare workers are the first in line to receive Pfizer’s vaccine, which demonstrated 95% efficacy in phase 3 trials, and received emergency use authorization from the FDA late last week. Moderna’s COVID vaccine is close behind.
While both vaccines are expected to have minor side effects such as fever and headache, OC healthcare leaders are optimistic.
“We are confident this vaccine will help,” Erik Wexler, chief executive of Providence Southern California, told the Business Journal. “There is not a big risk and as soon as I can put my arm out to have the vaccine administered to me, after others who need it more, I will be in line with my sleeve rolled up, ready to get the vaccine.”
OC’s case rates, like much of the country, have continued to worsen following the Thanksgiving weekend.
ICU patients in Orange County have nearly doubled in the past two weeks, with 179 ICU patients each day on average.
Hospitalizations have also doubled, with about 682 average daily COVID-19 patients in the past two weeks, up from about 342 in the two weeks prior.
Orange County as of last Thursday reported 11.3% ICU capacity on an unadjusted basis, and 3.5% capacity on an adjusted basis, which refers to the estimated number of beds for COVID patients when factoring in beds needed for patients without COVID.
The region also has an adjusted case rate of 30.3 cases per 100,000 residents and a positive testing rate of 10.6%.
With the vaccine is on its way, healthcare workers, and residents and workers in long-term care facilities, will receive priority. A widespread vaccination likely won’t begin until the spring, according to health officials.
“Having a vaccine that has been rigorously tested is a huge step forward in containing and stopping the coronavirus pandemic,” Mark Costa, senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser Permanente’s Southern California region, told the Business Journal. “It is important to remember that while a vaccine will be vital to ending the pandemic, it will take a long time for [a] widespread vaccination to be achieved.”
OC’s largest hospitals are ready to jump into action.
“Following so many months of challenges for our heroic health care heroes, front-line workers and communities across the globe, we are ready for the promise that these vaccines can achieve in slowing the pandemic and leading to its end,” Barry Arbuckle, chief executive of MemorialCare, told the Business Journal.
“I can assure you that Hoag has the means in place to distribute all FDA-EUA vaccines and play a role in—what we hope—will be the final chapter of this pandemic,” Robert Braithwaite, chief executive of Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, wrote in a community update last week.
The ability to take part in vaccine distribution includes having access to freezers or coolers that keep the vaccines at a required -94 degrees Fahrenheit until distributed. Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine have this requirement.
UCI Health has purchased additional ultra-low temperature freezers so that it can provide the vaccine to healthcare workers and, when the time comes, the community at large. It also has access to additional freezers that are typically used for research materials on the University of California-Irvine campus in Irvine.
Two local universities are also storing vaccines on behalf of the OC Health Care Agency, though the agency declined to share the names of the universities due to privacy and safety concerns.
A second order of Pfizer’s vaccine is expected to arrive two weeks after the first. Meanwhile, about 32,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine is expected to arrive within a week of being granted federal clearance, according to the OC Health Care Agency.
Hospitals Not Rushing to Shut Elective Surgeries
When OC’s largest hospitals prepared for a surge in COVID patients in March, they shut down elective surgeries, causing a huge decline in elective surgeries and massive layoffs.
The OC Health Care Agency last Thursday sent an order directing hospitals to activate surge plans such as cancelling elective surgeries and opening emergency operation centers if they hadn’t done so already. The order came about a day after reports that some patients in ambulances had to wait several hours before hospital admittance. Delays were caused by hospital administrative constraints, rather than a lack of available beds, the agency said.
OC hospital executives say they are prepared for the new surge, and despite the new order, they are much more reluctant to halt elective surgeries.
“Another lockdown could cause people to worry about getting a procedure,” UCI Health CEO Chad Lefteris said. “We’re going to continue to push that message to seek care. I’m afraid that’s the treadmill we’ll never get off.”
Kaiser Permanente has repurposed several clinics to handle specific services such as dermatology or same-day prescription pickup. Others have significantly expanded telemedicine offerings for a range of services such as mental health treatment and routine health appointments.
They are closely watching capacity in intensive care units, which if it continues to worsen, could cause their hospitals to pause elective procedures. This process will be more focused to ensure patients with life-threatening conditions are still getting treated.
Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian has had surge tents stationed outside of its two hospitals for the last five months to screen and triage COVID patients before they’re admitted to the hospital for treatment.
Providence Southern California has activated an Incident Command Center for daily review of its personnel needs. The health system can move caregivers from facility to facility as needed and has already put that flexibility to use in other areas of the state such as San Bernardino county, Providence CEO Erik Wexler said.
Heading into the Christmas holiday, hospital leadership continues to caution OC residents to practice social-distancing, mask wearing and resist holiday gatherings to slow the spread and save lives.
“Social distancing, wearing masks and not seeing family over the holidays is a matter of life or death,” said Wexler. “It’s not only a matter of life or death for your own family, it’s a matter of life or death for the caregivers delivering care to patients.”