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Mark J. King

COVID vaccines distribution is underway. Now what?

Here’s the final segment in our three-part series on the safety and effectiveness of the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines and our conversation with Mark J. King, Novant Health’s vice president of research and innovation. King was formerly a senior scientist at Pfizer, where he worked on clinical trials. Read the first segment of this series here and the second part here.

Since a vaccine is on its way, can we quit wearing masks?

No. Until the vaccine has been administered to a majority of Americans, masking, handwashing and social distancing are going to be our reality – and our responsibility. We can’t let our guard down yet. “Even after you get both doses of the vaccine, you’ll still need to mask, wash your hands frequently and social distance until we learn more about the protective immunity these vaccines confer,” King said. Learn more on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.   

The vaccine will likely be very effective at preventing the disease. It may not be as effective at preventing asymptomatic infection. So, someone’s who’s vaccinated could potentially still be a spreader. Masks will continue to be important safeguards for some time.

How will the government distribute vaccines? 

That’s still to be determined. But the government has committed to a distribution plan that’s ethical and transparent. It’s expected the first doses will be given to an estimated 21 million healthcare workers and 3 million residents and staff of skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care facilities.

“Ultimately, the difficult work of allocating limited initial supplies of a vaccine will fall on public officials in states, cities, counties and tribal lands,” according to The Washington Post. In North Carolina, the current plan is to give the vaccine first to high-risk healthcare workers, first responders, residents of long-term care facilities and adults with two or more chronic conditions.

Novant Health is also committed to fair distribution of the vaccine. President and chief executive officer Carl Armato: “Novant Health is committed to ethical, science-based practice that puts people first – now and always. I believe we have the best team in healthcare, and by ‘best’ I mean not only is this a team practicing with medical excellence, but also with the highest levels of integrity. We are a trusted expert in our region and that reputation and outstanding track record will help us communicate the message that any COVID-19 vaccine we administer to our patients is safe, is effective and is being distributed fairly.”

Vaccine recipients in phase 2 will likely be teachers, school system staff and child care workers; essential workers; those living in crowded conditions; adults at moderate risk and older adults.

The government has also committed to making the vaccine available to Americans at no cost. However, vaccine providers may charge an administrative fee.

Do we all need to get the COVID vaccine?

A vaccine is only as effective as the number of people who get a shot in the arm. And many are skeptical. A majority of Americans – some estimates put the number as high as 60% to 80% – will have to get the vaccine for the population to achieve herd immunity, which is what makes a vaccine a valuable public health tool. And a recent Pew Research Center study indicated that only 51% of U.S. adults would be willing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may yet announce some special populations that should not get the vaccine. “We know the vaccine hasn’t been tested in pediatric patients yet,” King pointed out. “There are new trials initiating down to age 12, but we don’t have the data in yet. Also, there will be questions about pregnant women, nursing mothers, transplant patients, immunocompromised patients, patients in hospice care, etc.”

How can I stay informed? 

Visit hhs.gov/coronavirus to learn more. And know that once this vaccine is widely distributed, scientists will continue to refine it. There may ultimately be even better vaccines, booster doses and different vaccines for different populations. For instance, one that’s specific to children. 

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