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First COVID-19 vaccine doses expected to arrive in St. Louis region by next week

First COVID-19 vaccine doses expected to arrive in St. Louis region by next week

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ST. LOUIS — All four major St. Louis-area health care systems are preparing to receive thousands of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, some as early as next week.

BJC HealthCare officials said on Wednesday that, pending emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 9,750 vaccine doses are expected to arrive by the end of next week or the beginning of the following week, likely of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc.

BJC will first vaccinate BJC or Washington University employees who have contact with patients, and scientists who work with infectious materials.

“That could be the chief of surgery for your hospital, or it could be the person who delivers the breakfast tray, or it could be the housekeeper who cleans the room when the patient’s away,” said BJC Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Clay Dunagan.

Representatives for all four major health systems said on Wednesday that they expected vaccine shipments in the next two weeks. With coronavirus cases on a steady rise, hospitals overwhelmed and staffing tight, officials hope that the vaccine will protect frontline workers and start the region on a path toward widespread immunity. Government and hospital officials alike see the vaccine, even months before it’s available to the general public, as a dash of hope.

Mercy is prepared to administer vaccinations to qualified employees, “possibly as early as next week,” spokeswoman Bethany Pope said in an email.

St. Luke’s Hospital expects to receive its first allotment of vaccines — up to 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 100 doses of the Moderna vaccine — the week of Dec. 21, spokeswoman Cassandra Frederickson said.

SSM Health anticipates receiving vaccine doses before Christmas, spokeswoman Stephanie Zoller said, but said it didn’t know how many.

BJC said it will separate employees into age brackets, and the older groups will be vaccinated first.

There are nearly 50,000 employees between Washington University and BJC, many of whom work with patients, so the first shipment will not cover everyone, Dunagan said. BJC aims to administer the doses in 10 working days. It doesn’t have enough employees available to administer the vaccinations, Dunagan said, so it is recruiting some in less-demanding roles, or among those who don’t hold clinical positions now.

The systems all said they will encourage but not require employees to get vaccinated now.

The Pfizer vaccine can be stored for five days at between 2 and 5 degrees Celsius, for up to 30 days in the specially designed containers they arrive in, refilled with dry ice every five days, or in ultra-low-temperature freezers for up to six months.

St. Louis has five freezers for vaccine storage. St. Louis County has acquired three ultra-cold freezers and has three smaller, portable ultra-cold freezers, said Christopher Ave, director of communications for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. Bayer is expected to loan the county two more ultra-cold freezers, as backup.

Ave said though the county does not have any COVID-19 vaccine doses yet, it estimates that the freezers, together, could hold roughly 125,000 doses.

But he emphasized that the region is still months away from vaccinations for the general public.

“It’s going to be a while. People need to be patient, and people need to continue practicing those actions that we’ve been recommending,” Ave said.

Dunagan, of BJC, said that he is not certain what percentage of the population will need to be vaccinated in order for the community to reach herd immunity. He said estimates have ranged from 40% to 80% of the population.

“It’s really conjecture at this point,” Dunagan said.

Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, told reporters on Friday that he believes by July or August the state will be able to offer a vaccination to anyone in Missouri who wants one.

The state expects to receive its first doses as early as next week, with about 340,000 doses expected by the end of 2020, department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said in an email Wednesday. In the first week of shipments, it expects 51,675 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. In the second week, it expects 63,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 105,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, and in the third week, 76,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and 46,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

It’s unclear if the state’s doses include those going to the St. Louis hospital systems.

Vaccine doses purchased by the federal government will be offered for free, but providers can charge administrative fees for the vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children and pregnant women did not participate in early trials, so the COVID-19 vaccines are not currently recommended for those groups. That may change as research continues.

Meanwhile, St. Louis-area hospitals reported an uptick in newly admitted coronavirus patients.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force reported 147 new COVID-19 patients admitted to BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital facilities in the area, up from 104 the day before.

Dr. Alex Garza, who leads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said that it was unclear if the number was an anomaly, or if it was a signal of an increase resulting from Thanksgiving travel and gatherings.

“We don’t know if this is a one-day blip, or if this is the beginning of what we feared was going to be coming,” Garza said.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force reported a total of 887 virus patients, down from 911 the day before, but still more than double the level at the beginning of November. Task force data lags two days.

Jeremy Kohler, of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report.

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Annika Merrilees • 314-340-8528 @annie3mer on Twitter amerrilees@post-dispatch.com

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