Florida is moving into another stage in the COVID-19 vaccination process this week, with frontline health care workers and others at the forefront of receiving shots last month now starting to roll up their sleeves again.
Both of the coronavirus vaccines approved in the United States require two doses per person, with a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine required after three weeks and a second dose of the Moderna vaccine after four weeks.
Florida’s first coronavirus vaccine shots, from Pfizer, were administered Dec. 14 — three weeks ago.
That means hospitals and county health departments, already straining to administer first doses, must now double back for those ready for round two.
“Will the places providing immunizations be in a position to be able to handle it? They will have to double their capacity to keep up,” said Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. He pointed out that different organizations are using different methods and technology to schedule vaccinations.
Many vaccines are given via a series of doses, with the first shot priming the body’s immune response and the second dose amplifying recognition and immune response, said Cindy Prins, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida.
The COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness is roughly 50 percent a couple weeks after getting the first shot but goes up to greater than 90 percent with the second dose. (Other coronavirus vaccines in development use only a single shot.)
The timeline to begin doling out second doses coincides with a scientific and political debate about whether it’s okay — or even, perhaps, the best tactic — to delay giving out second doses so more people would be able to receive first doses of vaccines.
British health authorities have said they plan to delay second doses of their approved vaccines in order to give out more first-round doses. Other European countries are considering similar moves.
The U.S. does not appear poised to go that route, with Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, telling CNN that the U.S. would “keep doing what we’re doing.”
Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that the state was getting 118,950 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be used for second doses at the hospitals and nursing homes that were the first to receive vaccines. That includes Tampa General Hospital and a strike team led by the Pinellas health department that worked to inoculate nursing homes and some first responders and others.
Kami Kim, division director of infectious diseases and international medicine at the University of South Florida and an attending physician at Tampa General, said she received her second and final COVID-19 vaccine shot Monday.
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Kim said she understands the argument for delaying second doses in order to get more people first doses. She’s seen coronavirus patients flooding into the hospital and has watched the numbers of cases and hospitalizations surge.
Florida has reported nearly 1.38 million cases of the coronavirus to date, including an increase of more than 11,000 from Sunday to Monday.
Rolling out vaccines more quickly won’t prevent the surge, but it could help resolve it more quickly, Kim said. It’s not critical that second doses be administered exactly three or four weeks later.
Still, changing the vaccination schedule from what was tested in the clinical trials has a lot of unknowns, Kim said. It’s unclear how long protection from the first shot will last, or how changing the schedule could affect public confidence in the vaccines, for instance.
“The second dose is called the boost for a reason,” Kim said. Given the information available now, she said she wouldn’t delay giving out second doses. But she did add that we’re in “non-ideal circumstances right now.”
Morris, at the Emerging Pathogens Institute, said he doesn’t see the second dose debate as a top issue for Florida to reckon with now.
He pointed to the gap between the number of vaccines that had been allocated to the Sunshine State and how many have actually been administered.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Florida has been shipped about 800,000 doses from the federal government, but only about 247,000 first doses have been administered so far. (The state’s own data puts the number slightly higher, at about 261,000 doses administered to date.)
“What we need is the ability to administer in an optimal, logistically smooth way, as many doses as possible,” Morris said. “We do not have a logistically smooth operation at this point. We’re going to continue to encounter problems.”
Still, the beginning of administering second doses of vaccines on Monday was another positive milestone in the state’s effort to contain the virus, experts said.
“We’re getting closer to the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Sally Alrabaa, an infectious disease specialist at the University of South Florida. “The more people go back for their second shot, the tunnel becomes shorter, or the light gets closer.”
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