A COVID-19 vaccine is here, but challenges remain - Albuquerque Journal

A COVID-19 vaccine is here, but challenges remain

Kathy Parkhill, left, a registered nurse at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, gives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Daisy Graves, a firefighter and paramedic for Santa Fe County. Graves is the first person in New Mexico who is not a front-line medical worker to receive the vaccine. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The past several days have seen the initial distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the country, a landmark moment in the fight against the disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in the past year.

As COVID-19 vaccines begin distribution among hospital workers and first responders in New Mexico, Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center received the first doses in the state. The next steps for inoculation remain uncertain, with many officials learning as they go.

In cities such as Santa Fe, urgent care clinics that have been hit hard by the pandemic are still trying to figure out ways to afford necessary equipment to store the vaccines and when they’ll actually receive them. Dr. Troy Watson, cofounder of Railyard Urgent Care in Santa Fe, said he’s unsure when he will be inoculated, but agreed that hospital workers should receive it first. He comes into contact with COVID-19 patients nearly every day.

Despite concerns about the vaccine’s safety due to its quick rollout, Watson said he’d still take the vaccine and thinks it’s safe. He said part of the reason vaccine trials take so long is due to the different demographics tested in clinical trials.

A freezer that Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center bought to store the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Christus St. Vincent received 975 doses that will be used to vaccinate front-line health care workers. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal )

Pfizer vaccines must be stored at extremely cold temperatures, requiring medical facilities to use specialty freezers to store them.

Most vaccines are kept at cold temperatures when they’re originally produced for formula stability. Watson said the pressure to produce a vaccine quickly is behind the temperature requirement.

“I think it’s because of how quickly it was rushed to market,” he said. “Whenever they’re doing vaccine trials, they’re doing this ultra cold stuff. Then, they keep doing trials, slowly bringing the temperature up to see if it changes the efficacy of the vaccine. So I think that’s probably secondary to trying to get it to market quicker.”

But it’s this cold temperature that also makes it difficult for urgent care clinics such as Railyard Urgent Care to access the vaccine. Freezers needed to keep the Pfizer vaccine cost around $11,000, Watson said.

Right now, his clinic can’t afford that cost – it’s barely breaking even.

Watson spoke with Pfizer officials and was told the vaccine can be stored temporarily with dry ice, but it’s not a long-term solution. He’s hoping that other vaccines that won’t requite extreme storage needs will be approved and distributed soon.

But, for now, he’s unsure when he, or his patients, will get the opportunity to get vaccinated. For clinics in rural areas, that uncertainty can be even greater.

Kathy Parkhill, a registered nurse at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, gives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Adrian Perea, a firefighter for the city of Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Mark Bjorklund is chief clinical officer for El Centro Family Health, which has clinic locations in small, rural locations across northern New Mexico. He says clinics in his network will be receiving the Moderna vaccine, in part because, unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it doesn’t require expensive freezers for storage.

“I’d say that’s a good thing for us because we have no ability to do that,” Bjorklund said.

Given the extreme isolation of some of El Centro’s clinics, he anticipates challenges in distributing the vaccine and information to locals. His team has already begun discussing advertising strategies to inform residents.

While workers in hospitals have received many of the first doses, local governments are planning ways to ensure that many of their employees are also inoculated. Officials in Santa Fe have said that certain personnel affiliated with the city either received vaccinations last week or will in coming days.

Santa Fe Emergency Management Director Kyle Mason said only emergency medical services personnel and contract workers managing the Midtown Emergency Shelter are currently eligible for vaccinations.

As far as who can qualify going forward is concerned, Mason said guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not state specifically which employees should be prioritized for the vaccine, adding it’s “not as specific as we would like.”

It’s unclear how soon employees in other areas of city government, such as the police department, will become eligible for the vaccine, Mason said. Agencies in multiple levels of government are currently attempting to sort that out.

“It’s an intricate process that everybody’s going through for the first time,” Mason said.

Alfredo Montoya, Rio Arriba County fire and emergency services chief, said county first responders will receive vaccinations this weekend. As additional doses come in, Montoya anticipates law enforcement will be next.

Since the county works with the state health department, Montoya said the county hasn’t had to acquire any special freezers as the department is storing the vaccines for the county.

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“Because the vaccine is (in) very preliminary stages, a lot of side effects and/or how different people are going to react differently to the vaccine is a little bit unknown,” he said. “So one of the things that we are having to do is make sure that when we do administer this vaccine to our front-line responders, the vaccine is not given to all of the personnel right away.”

In addition to first responders, Montoya said hospital workers in Española were also among the first in the county to receive the vaccine.

When it comes to vaccinating the general public, that’s when things become a little more tricky. Parts of Rio Arriba County are very rural and transporting the vaccines to these areas could be challenging, he said.

“If you’re not able to transport these vaccines efficiently and (in a) timely (manner), it can pose a lot of complications,” he said. “And, unfortunately, the possibility is there that you may have vaccines that end up wasted if it’s not coordinated appropriately.”

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