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Augusta Health ready to receive, store and administer the COVID-19 vaccine

December 2, 2020
Published in: COVID-19

COVID Vaccine being placed in cold storage

Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused infections, hospitalizations, and deaths across the Commonwealth of Virginia and locally in the Staunton, Augusta County and Waynesboro area. The severity and impact of the pandemic has spurred a historically rapid quest for an effective vaccine by multiple pharmaceutical companies. Many are far along in development — in fact, two (Pfizer and Moderna) have already applied for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Augusta Health, in partnership with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA), has been identified as one of a limited number of facilities in the Commonwealth that is operationally ready to receive, store, and administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

"The COVID-19 vaccines will be critically important to our community's ability to be healthy and fully-engaged in all the activities of life," says Mary N. Mannix, FACHE, CEO of Augusta Health. "It's also important to Augusta Health's ability to respond to the pandemic by protecting both our employees and our patients. It's one more thing that will keep everyone safe. We've been working with key partners externally and with a multi-disciplinary task force internally to ensure we are operationally prepared to 'go' with the vaccine as soon as we receive it."

"Operationally prepared" includes having an ultra-low subzero freezer on-site that can store vaccines in the range of negative 60-80 degrees Celsius. In addition to the ultra-low freezer, Augusta Health has other subzero freezers, vaccine refrigerators, and coolers for storage and transportation of all vaccines. The hospital's location is also key to being able to provide assistance to other hospitals in the region that may not have the storage capabilities.

Internally, Augusta Health's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force includes both clinical and logistical representatives to provide depth of expertise. The Task Force virtually attends all VDH and VHHA Task Force meetings and designs the internal Augusta Health workflows and policies to comply with regulations and best practices.

Both Pfizer and Moderna are expected to receive emergency use authorization in December. Their supplies, though, will not be large enough to vaccinate all who need or want a vaccine. Other manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are close behind in development, and their vaccines will add to the supply. Because initial supply is limited, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices will decide the order and priority of who is vaccinated first.

"Although the final guidance on who will be vaccinated when has not been received yet, we have received some indication of what the priority might be," says John E. Mack, PA, Chief Operations Officer of Augusta Medical Group and part of Augusta Health's Vaccine Task Force. "Across the nation and here in Virginia, the first to receive the vaccine are expected to be frontline healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities. After that, the next phase is expected to include other essential workers, then high-risk adults and then the final phase is expected to be the general population. So it will be several months, as additional vaccines are approved and supply increases, for the whole vaccination process to unfold."

Both current vaccines under review by the FDA for emergency use require two shots a few weeks apart for maximum effectiveness and full protection. Per the federal government's promise at the time of development, the cost is initially expected to be free to the American public.

"While the COVID-19 vaccine will not be available to most until sometime next year, the flu vaccine is available now," adds Mack. "It is possible to be infected with both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, and that would be a complicated and difficult situation. We encourage all to get their flu vaccines now, and their COVID-19 vaccines when they become available."

As the wait for the vaccine continues for a bit longer, the power to lower the risk of infection from COVID-19 is here with us now: mask regularly, practice good hand hygiene, and maintain social distance in public.