A file image of two syringes and a face mask
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COVID 2021

Vaccine watch: Santa Cruz County’s first batches to be administered on Thursday

COVID-19 vaccinations will begin with emergency health care workers Thursday morning, followed by other health care personnel. Nursing homes will be served by a separate federal pharmacy program.

Santa Cruz County will receive its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines by Wednesday with emergency medical personnel first up to get the shots the next morning, county health officials announced.

The 1,950 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine — two boxes of 975 doses each — will be distributed to Dominican Hospital and Watsonville Community Hospital, the county’s two acute-care hospitals with ICUs and emergency departments, Dr. David Ghilarducci said Monday. Ghilarducci is the county’s deputy health officer and has closely overseen Santa Cruz’s response to the pandemic.

The doses will be stored in county freezers at “dry ice-cold” temperatures — negative 70 degrees Celsius — until they’re ready to go into the arms of frontline health care workers.

ICU and emergency department staff will be the first in line to be vaccinated Thursday morning, followed by the rest of the medical personnel and support staffers at the two hospitals, Ghilarducci said.

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It’s not the only step to safeguard health care workers. On Monday, a weekly testing recommendation issued by the California Department of Public Health at the urging of the California Nurses Association, took effect. Hospitals are being asked to test all inpatients, and all health care workers, once a week.

Previously, hospital workers who didn’t have access to testing through employer-sponsored health plans had to jump through the same hoops as the general public to get tested.

327,000 doses statewide

California’s first shipment of 327,000 doses is meant for critical health care workers, according to priorities set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After this week, Santa Cruz County expects to receive weekly shipments of the Pfizer vaccine, as well as doses of another COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Moderna — that is expected to get emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration later this week.

This first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine will immunize 10 to 15 percent of health care workers in Santa Cruz County, Ghilarducci said.

“Probably by the end of January, we’ll have almost all of the health care workers vaccinated,” he said.

Residents and health care workers in the county’s nursing homes — which have been hit particularly hard by outbreaks — will receive the COVID-19 vaccine between Dec. 25 and the first week of January through a separate federal pharmacy program, Ghilarducci said.

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Nursing homes and other congregate care settings have struggled to keep the coronavirus out and to curb transmission among their highly vulnerable residents. Each of the county’s seven nursing homes has seen at least one viral outbreak since September.

The vaccine requires two shots administered 21 days apart to reach the 95% effectiveness established in clinical trials. California health officials estimate that by the end of the year, they will have given a dose of the vaccine to 2.16 million people who are in the group that’s first in line — health care workers, as well as residents of long-term care facilities — but delays are possible, given the complicated logistics facing the program, dubbed Operation Warp Speed.

It’s still too soon to say when members of the general public will be able to get a COVID-19 shot, or how effective the vaccines will be in preventing the spread of the virus. Studies have shown that 95% of vaccine recipients are protected from the ill effects of the coronavirus, but it’s still possible to become infected with COVID-19 even after immunization, Ghilarducci said.

It’s also unclear how long immunity lasts, but vaccine trials showed a “pretty robust antibody response” in recipients, he said.

“That’s really encouraging, that this could be longer-lasting immunity,” he said.

Even after Santa Cruz County achieves widespread vaccination, the public will need to continue masking, hand-washing and physical distancing until researchers can answer some of those key questions, Ghilarducci said.

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Once a week testing for hospital workers

The vaccine rollout also comes as county hospitals begin implementing a system to keep tabs on disease activity among health care workers with once-a-week testing, as recommended by the state health department.

Santa Cruz County’s hospitals are working toward that goal, Ghilarducci said. Thanks to expanded testing capacity at the facilities, they will be able to monitor COVID-19 more closely in health care settings.

“Forty percent of people could be walking around and being infectious without having any symptoms, so you really have to tie some surveillance into this,” he said.

While he did not specify how many cases of COVID-19 there had been among the county’s thousands of health care workers, Ghilarducci said most cases had been traced back to household contacts or holiday gatherings.