With the recent approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine last week and the authorization of the Moderna vaccine Friday evening, an eventual end to the pandemic is on many people’s minds. As students await vaccination and weigh their feelings about the vaccine, the University of Michigan has already begun distribution and is preparing to provide vaccines to the general public over the course of the next few months.
The University’s distribution plan
Michigan Medicine first received 1,950 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 14 and began vaccinating employees the following day, according to Mary Masson, director of public relations at Michigan Medicine.
In an email to The Michigan Daily on Dec. 14, Masson wrote this first vaccine shipment is a limited supply, as Michigan Medicine has about 28,000 employees. At a town hall meeting on Friday, Michigan Medicine officials said they would begin vaccinating 600 people per day by next week.
“We have implemented a phased approach for our employees consistent with recommended guidelines from federal and state health agencies,” Masson wrote. “We will ramp up the volume of vaccinations as early as next week, depending on supply.”
Michigan Medicine plans to distribute the vaccine in two phases, with Phase 1 having three distinct stages. Phase 1A includes health care professionals and residents of long-term care facilities; Phase 1B is other workers deemed “essential” like educators, food service workers and police; and Phase 1C is all adults over 65 years old and those with high risk medical conditions. Phase 2 is large-scale distribution to all adults.
Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines require two separate shots. Pfizer’s shots are given 21 days apart from one another, while Moderna’s are administered 28 days apart.
University students who do not fall into Phase 1 will be able to be vaccinated in Phase 2. In an email to the University community on Dec. 14, University President Mark Schlissel wrote the University will eventually have enough doses for all who wish to get the vaccine.
Nursing junior Zoe Gierlinger said she hopes the protocol for vaccine distribution will be more organized than COVID-19 testing was in the fall semester, pointing to previous issues the University had with its COVID-19 dashboard and other testing concerns.
“In my experience with COVID-19 testing on campus, it was a little bit disorganized for a while, and I think that compared to other schools we still didn’t really have a solid protocol for testing across campus,” Gierlinger said. “I’m not really sure how they are going to control it with a double dose, so I think it’s definitely going to require a lot of attention from the president and everyone else on campus.”
AstraZeneca, another company developing a COVID-19 vaccine, is currently running Phase 3 vaccine trials out of Michigan Medicine, giving Washtenaw County residents the ability to participate in the development of the vaccine.
Dan Kaul, professor of infectious disease at the medical school, said the AstraZeneca vaccine trial through the hospital has garnered significant interest. The clinical trial is open to adults in stable health who have previously been diagnosed with COVID-19. Phase 3 of the trial began in September and will last nearly two years, aiming to involve around 30,000 participants at 80 sites.
Large numbers of volunteers for the program came not only from Washtenaw County, but also the surrounding counties and even northern Michigan and Ohio, Kaul said.
Kaul said there has been a lot of interest in the trials from health care workers and University students.
“Initially we had enormous interest when we first started looking for subjects back in the summer,” Kaul said. “There's still quite a bit of interest, but less as other vaccines are starting to become available.”
For most of the study groups, Kaul said they are looking to test the vaccine on people who are at a higher risk of getting severe COVID-19 symptoms, such as those over 65 years old.
“It’s really important that the population of the trials reflect the population and people who are getting COVID, particularly who are getting severe COVID,” Kaul said. “Because you want to know as best as you can that it works.”
Rackham student Ben Hsu recently made the decision to participate in the AstraZeneca trials. He said the uniqueness of the current moment made participating in these trials a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in the scientific process.
“I’m hoping to go to medical school,” Hsu said. “Participating in that process is something that I think if you want to go into the health sciences or if you want to go into healthcare, that it is something valuable for you to do.”
Though he was excited and committed to participating, Hsu said he was also definitely nervous.
“You are the guinea pig,” Hsu said. “Anyone (participating in the trials) who says ‘I’m not nervous,’ is either completely misinformed or lying to themselves.”
Hsu said he has not actually been able to get his trial vaccine yet. However, he said participating in the process has been straightforward so far and is fairly confident in the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
Students, community members respond to the vaccine
University community members are being asked to fill out the Blue Queue questionnaire, a survey to gauge interest in the COVID-19 vaccine and determine priority groups for vaccination. In an email Friday morning, Schlissel wrote that more than 40,000 students, faculty and staff have filled out the questionnaire, demonstrating significant interest in receiving the vaccine.
As someone involved in the vaccine process, Kaul said he is satisfied with the science and safety measures taken into consideration by the Food and Drug Administration despite some people’s hesitancy to receive the vaccine.
“While it’s been fast, it has not been rushed, despite quite a bit of pressure to rush it,” Kaul said. “It’s a remarkable achievement … what we’ve seen so far from the mRNA vaccines, is really remarkable to see.”
Ann Arbor resident John Modica agreed with Kaul, saying he plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine as early as he is able to.
“In the face of all the scientific evidence … (getting the vaccine) makes sense,” Modica said. “Plus I’m exposed to several vulnerable people, particularly my parents who are getting elderly — it’s absurd to be a potential pathogen risk to anybody.”
Hsu is sure the vaccine will be safe, asking why anyone would turn down an opportunity to protect themselves against the virus.
“My first question would be, ‘Why don’t you want to get the vaccine?’” Hsu asked.
For Ann Arbor resident Ronald Narge-Luiz, however, the hesitancy to get the vaccine stems from the quick turnaround time and speedy vaccine trials.
“I think it takes at least a couple years of research to be able to know if it’s actually good, if it’s going to be efficient, if it’s going to stop the spread,” Narge-Luiz said.
While the COVID-19 vaccine was developed in a number of months, it received unprecedented levels of funding and went through all standard trial and safety procedures before being authorized.
LSA junior Kaitlynn Lane said because of personal health issues, she will likely wait before she feels comfortable getting the vaccine.
“I just got diagnosed with a whole bunch of stuff, and my health isn’t the greatest,” Lane said. “I’m not sure how my body would react to this new type of vaccine, because it hasn’t been tried on every single subject.”
According to the FDA, the vaccine is safe for all adults with varying health conditions with the exception of one group: people who have a history of severe allergic reactions to a component of the vaccine. Clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine showed that people with underlying health conditions responded just as well to the vaccine as those without any health conditions.
Lane said there is not much that can change her mind, noting that she would be far more comfortable waiting for more studies and research to be done. Lane also said she would encourage people who are healthy to get it whenever they can so society and the economy can start getting back to normal.
“They’re probably healthy individuals … and it’s probably not going to have any effects on them,” Lane said. “They’re doing their part to get it running for the rest of us.”
Kaul called on the medical community to be understanding of people’s fears and to be kind and respectful in their approaches to make them more comfortable with the idea of getting a vaccine.
“I think that it’s really incumbent on the whole medical community, government organizations and other community-based organizations,” Kaul said. “To really reach out to people and explain the process for testing these vaccines and the benefits, because I think there’s still a lot of concern about it in the community.”
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