Mount Nittany Medical Center began administering Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to direct care providers and staff at the hospital on Friday morning, marking a milestone in the battle against the disease caused by the coronavirus.
‘It’s significant in many different ways,’ Mount Nittany Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nirmal Joshi said during an interview on Friday.
The biggest of those is that it marks the first step in an effective process for preventing symptoms of the infection. Clinical trials found the two-dose Pfizer vaccine to be 95% effective against COVID-19.
‘But perhaps almost just as importantly, it’s a tremendous thing for healthcare workers,’ Joshi said. ‘This has been a very depressing journey with the number of lost lives, with the number of people where beyond a certain point you just could not do anything. Watching that unfold in front of your eyes I think has been very difficult on healthcare providers as well as healthcare staff on the front lines.
‘So the fact that this very highly effective vaccine has come at a time when the death rate is perhaps at the highest level, the sheer optimism of the fact that the vaccine is here and is able to protect people with the kind of efficacy that it has, is tremendously reinvigorating for a workforce across the country that has been really disheartened by how this entire process has occurred.’
Mount Nittany received 975 doses of the vaccine on Wednesday and began vaccinating frontline hospital staff at 7 a.m. on Friday. Vaccines will continue to be distributed on Saturday and Monday.
Joshi said that the vaccine is being made available to every person who works in the hospital and comes into direct contact with patients. While receiving the vaccination will be voluntary, most staff who were surveyed said they would get it, according to Mount Nittany Health.
Those vaccinated will receive the needed second dose in 21 days.
“I cannot express how excited I am that the vaccine has been developed and that we are one step closer to ending this pandemic,” Emily Shearer, a registered nurse who works in critical care services at Mount Nittany, said in a provided statement. “I work with COVID positive inpatients on almost every one of my shifts at the hospital, so I am beyond thankful to have received this additional line of protection not only for me, but also for my family that I go home to every day.”
Dr. Upendra Thaker administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Matt Butler, RN with Mount Nittany Medical Center’s cardiology and pulmonary services. Photo courtesy Mount Nittany Health
Mount Nittany Health applied for vaccines for both the hospital and its physician group practices. Joshi said that the medical center was one of 87 hospitals in Pennsylvania approved to receive the Pfizer vaccine based on storage requirements (minus 76 to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit).
The health system will likely receive the Moderna-produced vaccine for its physician group practices once it is approved. On Thursday a Food and Drug Administration panel recommended the Moderna vaccine be authorized for emergency use and a formal approval was expected on Friday. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine can be stored at regular freezer temperatures.
‘So now we’re just simply waiting to hear from the [Pennsylvania] Department of Health as to when we might be able to get our shipment of that vaccine,’ Joshi said.
He added that Mount Nittany has asked the health department for guidance on how it should assist other health care workers — such as EMTs — who are not directly affiliated with the health system.
‘Our intent is to help as many people who are on the frontlines as we possibly can,’ Joshi said. ‘We’ve actually reached out to the Department of Health to get some guidance from them to ask ‘How would you like us to help?’ We are still awaiting a response, but for the first round, for the first tier we want to make sure that we are able to immunize everyone who is employed by Mount Nittany or affiliated directly with Mount Nittany.’
The Department of Health has a phased distribution plan, with health care workers and long-term care facilities at the front of the line for the limited first phase. From there it will go to other first responders, critical workers and individuals with the highest risk. The second phase two includes a broader scope of critical and health care workers and high risk conditions. The third phase will distribute the vaccine to the general population.
Variables such as approval of other vaccines beyond Pfizer and Moderna make it difficult to predict when vaccinations might be more widely available, Joshi said.
‘But the current predictions are, based on national public health experts, that before the community is able to see more widespread use of the vaccine will not be until at least the springtime,’ he said.
In the mean time, as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths continue to surge locally, statewide and nationally, Joshi urged community members to practice mitigation measures including wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and avoiding gatherings.
‘If there is anytime that it is critically important to protect yourself and those around you, it’s now,’ he said. ‘It would be such a shame if this death toll continues on while we are seemingly reaching the end of this very long and very bleak and dark tunnel. Just as we are beginning to see the first signs of light at the end of that, it would be such a shame to lose so many more lives, which is why a little bit more discipline and patience [are needed], around the holiday in particular because that’s where we are most worried that people will take chances.
‘We’re all human. I understand the need to socialize. I understand our basic human instinct is to be able to get together with others and that’s exactly what we’ve been told not to do. We would strongly urge people to please wear masks and please do not gather. This is a time when a little bit of sacrifice and a little bit of discipline will pay rich dividends in avoiding loss of life and suffering.’
Shearer made a similar plea on behalf of health care workers.
“Please, for all of us working the front lines during this time, until we are able to vaccinate more people and build an immunity to this virus, we need you to be responsible and continue to practice known COVID safety measures,” she said.
Mount Nittany Medical Center began vaccinating its direct care providers and staff against COVID on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Photo courtesy Mount Nittany Health