The coronavirus pandemic has caused more than 290,000 American deaths from COVID-19, a chilling fatality rate that may reach as high as 329,000 before the end of the year. Although otherwise healthy people have died from COVID-19, people with respiratory ailments and certain other health problems have an increased risk of developing a serious disease after they are infected. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of older people have health conditions that elevate their risk.
The good news is that vaccines may soon be available. There are currently 13 vaccines in large-scale stage 3 testing. Safety trials in stages 1 and 2 demonstrated that those vaccines are probably safe for most people. Stage 3 testing determines whether they will likely be effective in addition to being safe.
Effective vaccines prompt the body to develop immunity to a disease. In other words, they prevent an infection from taking hold and causing a disease. They do not cure diseases that have developed prior to the vaccination.
Vaccine Approval and Distribution
The Food and Drug Administration is tasked with assuring that vaccines are safe and effective. At this point, there is no FDA-approved or authorized vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19. The FDA will soon consider giving emergency approval to the most promising vaccines, including those developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
The FDA’s guidelines generally require safety data to be gathered for six months before it will grant full approval. While that timeline pushes full approval into the spring, emergency approval may permit limited distribution to begin in the very near future. Moncef Slaoui, a Trump administration science advisor, hopes that emergency approval will significantly reduce the death rate in the elderly population before the end of January.
Dr. Anthony Fauci worries that the nation’s soaring hospitalization rate may continue at least through January. Even if vaccines are distributed quickly, Dr. Fauci predicts that they are unlikely to reach enough people to alter the course of the pandemic until late spring or summer of 2021.
Since it will take time for the pandemic to recede, being vaccinated offers the most immediate protection against COVID-19. The question for seniors is whether they will be among the early recipients of a vaccine that receives the FDA’s emergency approval.
Will the Elderly Be Given Early Access to the Vaccine?
A CDC advisory committee tasked with prioritizing vaccine distribution has recommended that two groups should be the first recipients. Frontline healthcare workers are frequently exposed to the virus and provide vital care for patients. When they acquire a contagious infection, they can’t do their jobs, even if they do not become seriously ill. Protecting them will better enable the healthcare system to cope with the needs of COVID-19 patients.
The committee recommended placing workers who provide healthcare directly to patients first in line to receive approved vaccines. The 21 million healthcare workers who fall into that category include “people who work in hospitals, long term care facilities, home healthcare, pharmacies, emergency medical services as well as in public health.”
The committee also recommended prioritizing distribution to older Americans living in skilled nursing or long-term care facilities. About 5 million Americans fall into that category.
The committee recommended prioritizing seniors who reside in long-term care facilities because of their vulnerability. Seniors who live at home or in a residential community can usually practice social distancing. Seniors who depend on staff members to help them meet their daily needs are at greater risk of being exposed to the virus.
As Time reports: “While only 1% of the US population lives in long term care, the residents and the staff who work there account for 6% of COVID-19 cases and 40% of the deaths.” The committee’s chair explained that prioritizing distribution to the most vulnerable population is a means of “promoting justice and mitigating health inequities.”
In the end, state health departments will make final decisions about distributing the vaccine. Since there may be only 6 millions doses available in the first batch of vaccine distribution, not everyone in a prioritized group is likely to be vaccinated quickly. Slaoui indicated that most prioritized individuals might be vaccinated by the middle of March. Seniors who are not in long-term care facilities may need to wait until May or June before vaccinations are available.