Sanford chief physician: COVID-19 vaccine a ‘game-changer’

"This is the best option we have so we don't repeat what happened this year"

Sanford chief physician: COVID-19 vaccine a ‘game-changer’

A vaccine to prevent the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is coming and everyday, Sanford Health is one step closer to filling the shelves of its storage freezers.

Late Friday, Dec. 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. This allows for the vaccine to be distributed in the United States.

“This, quite honestly in the year of the pandemic, is the most exciting thing we’ve seen,” said Sanford’s chief physician Jeremy Cauwels, M.D. “It truly is, in my opinion, a game-changer and the thing we were hoping for to not only get people back to the things that they enjoy doing, but to be able to do it safely.”

Watch: Dr. Cauwels joined Sanford Health News for a Facebook Live Q&A, Dec. 10

“It’s absolutely fantastic that we’re able to get here.”

Why this vaccine is so important

“This virus is good at spreading itself and it’s good at infecting people,” he said. Additionally, he says, these vaccines will dramatically slow down and eventually stop the spread by developing ‘herd immunity’ more quickly.

The latest data in South Dakota shows nearly 80% of people have not had the virus. Dr. Cauwels said vaccinating at least half of that 80% will help the population reach herd immunity before we see more serious illness and death.

He encourages individuals who are young and relatively healthy, who don’t believe they need a vaccine, to think about the people they could spread it to.

“This vaccine stops that chain of transmission in its tracks so the virus doesn’t travel through you to get to somebody else,” he explained. “In my opinion, this is the most important part about what this means to those who would say otherwise, ‘I probably don’t need the vaccine. I’m going to be fine.’

“Whether or not you’re personally excited, this is the way to protect you and the ones you love. It’s the best option we have right now so we don’t repeat what happened this year.”

How do we know it will be safe, effective?

The front-running COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, were developed in a platform that didn’t exist before. Dr. Cauwels said both two-dose vaccines were made out of what’s called mRNA, which is something our body makes every day.

He realizes people get concerned about vaccines and putting things into the body that may not belong there.

“To that group, I say: this is absolutely as close to anything we could make to what your body would naturally expect anyway.”

Dr. Cauwels said the efficacy is remarkable, as well. When discussions over a vaccine started to pick up in early- to mid-2020, medical experts and researchers were hoping the vaccine would be at least 60-70% effective.

According to data he received earlier in the week:

  • After the first dose, the vaccine is 50% effective
  • After the second dose, it’s more than 95% effective

“That means it’s creating the immunity it always promised and it’s actually giving you the protection that you need to get through,” Dr. Cauwels said. “Those numbers are astounding, quite honestly, to be north of 90%.”

If you’re cautious about getting this vaccine

“From a science and safety standpoint, we believe this vaccine is going to be exceptionally safe,” Dr. Cauwels said. “It was exceptionally safe in the 37,000 people who have already received the vaccine.”

Generally, he says, any adverse reaction to a vaccine occurs in the first 60 days.

These vaccines were tested and proven to be safe in your average adult all the way up to the elderly. Regarding pregnant women and children under 12, research is still underway.

If you have questions about whether or not to get the vaccine, reach out to your primary care provider.

Emergency Use Authorization (EUA)

The EUA is a pass to get to the front of the line for consideration by the FDA recognizing that the COVID-19 vaccine is critical to the state of the country and public health.

The FDA is in the process of reviewing the data and telling the vaccine developers they’ve done the appropriate studies, Dr. Cauwels says. It’s a process that normally takes months to years to complete.

Read: COVID-19 FAQs: How do vaccines get developed and approved?

The Pfizer vaccine is the first to hit the market with Moderna’s authorization expected within a few weeks.

Sanford’s role in distribution

Sanford Health is ready to educate communities and distribute the coronavirus vaccine as soon as it is available.

“Vaccines don’t save any lives. Vaccinations do,” Dr. Cauwels said. “Getting them into people’s arms is the most important thing we can do right now.”

Sanford Health knew months ago this roll-out would be coming, which led to obtaining seven freezers of various sizes that reach temperatures of 75-below-zero in its medical centers across the region.

In a video feature by CNN, Sanford Health leaders including Dr. Cauwels detailed their plans to distribute and store the vaccines.

“The reason for those freezers is to make sure that no matter where you live within the Sanford footprint, we can deliver a vaccine that will be safe and effective and do so in a way that makes sure that we respect this vaccine by keeping it cold until it’s ready to be given.”

Part of the phased approach includes first getting the vaccine to front-line health care providers as well as the staff and older adult residents in long-term care locations. The next phase includes essential workers in education, food and agriculture, first responders, transportation, etc., followed by adults with high-risk medical conditions and those over age 65.

Stay diligent over the holidays, into 2021

Even if you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending the vaccine with continued masking.

If people get their vaccine when it’s their turn, Dr. Cauwels expects Sanford Health and other health care organizations will be able to vaccinate the population in the first six months of 2021.

“As soon as April, May or June, we’re going to see a substantial portion of the population vaccinated and a substantial decrease in the virus.”

But before that, we need to get through the holiday season.

Experts worry about the week before Christmas because of our behavior over Thanksgiving and the first or second week of January based on behavior over Christmas.

“If we can get through mid-January without another major surge, we will be very close to vaccinating many of our high-risk groups. That, I think, could make all the difference between whether or not January and February looks like hundreds of people in the hospital — with COVID-19 and maybe influenza — or some people in the hospital with COVID and influenza.”

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Posted In COVID-19, Expert Q&A, Immunizations, Senior Services