As the nation’s first doses of coronavirus vaccines are being issued, archdiocesan frontline workers are ready to roll up their sleeves – but they will likely need to wait until next month, said administrators.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health, which is overseeing the vaccine rollout for most of the state, “has a big picture deadline, but it’s not exact,” said Francis Swiacki, executive director of developmental programs for archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS).
Swiacki’s division encompasses some of the pandemic’s most vulnerable and vaccine-ready populations: direct service professionals, nurses and adults with developmental disabilities.
On Dec. 11, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, a two-dose inoculation that uses messenger RNA (mRNA) to copy the virus’s spike-shaped protein and trigger an immune response.
Shipments began moving across the country Sunday as the U.S. topped 16.5 million infections and close to 300,000 deaths from the virus.
But officials caution that initial supplies will be limited, requiring a phased distribution that in Pennsylvania will prioritize health care personnel, emergency medical services’ first responders, and residents and staff of congregate care settings, including those of CSS.
In that third group, “the goal is to get staff vaccinated first, since they are more at risk to pass along the virus,” said Angela Babcock, director of nursing at CSS’s Communities of Don Guanella and Divine Providence (DGDP), a Springfield-based network that provides a continuum of care that includes community and campus-based living arrangements.
CSS submitted a vaccine provider agreement to the state and received approval, although “we don’t know the specific number of vaccines we’re going to get at this time,” said Babcock. “Once all the information is processed, we will get an estimated date of delivery and the amount.”
In the meantime, she said, DGDP staff are working to ensure they’re ready to handle and distribute the doses.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is being shipped in vials containing five single doses of 0.3 ml each, requires storage temperatures between -112 and -76 degrees Fahrenheit. DGDP has ordered refrigeration equipment to accommodate the vaccine, said Babcock.
DGDP operational support director Suann Schuster and her team have ensured staff “have PPE (personal protective equipment), rapid testing equipment and all the supplies we need to vaccinate people,” Babcock added.
Those supplies include epinephrine injections (commonly known as EpiPens) to counter any potential allergic reactions to the vaccine, she said.
DGDP already has staff qualified to administer the vaccine according to CDC guidelines, said Babcock.
Now they simply need patience, she said.
“Honestly, our nurses are like, ‘Did you hear anything yet?’” said Babcock. “They’re very anxious and eager to move forward. To be part of the healing and the solution is exciting.”
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