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COVID-19 vaccine town hall addresses members’ questions

The COVID-19 vaccination rollout is underway in the U.S., and many healthcare workers, nursing home staff and residents who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in early January are already getting their second round of shots. Meanwhile, more essential workers, including teachers, are in the queue for the next round of vaccinations. A town hall held on Jan. 12 and sponsored by the AFT; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the National Education Association; and the Service Employees International Union gave union members a chance to hear from a panel of the nation’s leading experts on the COVID-19 vaccine. The panelists answered questions on a variety of issues ranging from vaccine safety and efficacy to equitable distribution. 

doctor giving woman vaccine. they both wear maskslphoto credit: echatnoir

“This vaccine could have incredible consequences for many of you, members of your union and your family,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, who moderated the event.

In October 2020, the AFT passed a resolution, “Essential Principles for a COVID-19 Vaccine,” that expressed support for a vaccine that has been proven to be both safe and effective by science. The resolution also called for an effective communications and education strategy about the vaccine. The town hall was the second in a series designed to keep members up to date on the vaccine. The panel included Dr. Peter Marks, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, and Dr. Helene Gayle. Marks is director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration. The center is responsible for ensuring the safety and effectiveness of biological products, including vaccines. Messonnier is the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Messonnier’s agency is involved in efforts to prioritize which groups should receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as coordinating with state and local public health authorities on vaccine distribution and administration plans. Gayle is the president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust and co-chair of the Committee on Equitable Allocation of Vaccine for the Novel Coronavirus, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The NASEM committee drafted a framework for equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Marks opened the discussion by calling the rapid development of the vaccine a remarkable achievement. “The end result of our process has led us to feel very comfortable with recommending these vaccines,” he said.

“We anticipated that in the early days of the rollout of this vaccine, the demand for the vaccine would outstrip the supply,” said Messonnier, who noted that the CDC came up with a framework to help state and local health departments target their early vaccination efforts. “Our approach is that vaccines should go to every corner of the United States. But equally, we need to make sure that people are getting the information and education they need to know so when it's their turn to get vaccinated, they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get the vaccine in their arms,” she said.

“We considered how this unique pandemic not only had a huge public health impact, but also a huge societal impact,” said Gayle, who spoke about how to get the vaccine to communities historically overlooked and underserved by the healthcare system.

The committee co-chaired by Dr. Gayle offered several recommendations for equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, including using lessons learned from past allocation frameworks for mass vaccination campaigns, as well as building on the vaccination infrastructure that has existed for decades and ensuring that cost would not be a barrier to getting vaccinated.

Dr. Gayle said that transparency about the vaccine would help address hesitancy to getting the vaccination, adding that “it was important that we also worked with community-based organizations in developing messages that were relevant to diverse communities.” She also said it was important to have “messengers who could give those messages in ways that were credible.”

When asked about how long it would take for the vaccine to take effect and how long it might last, Dr. Marks said it would be roughly two weeks after getting the first vaccine before protection against COVID-19 was 30 to 50 percent. “When you get the second vaccine, you get the full extent of immunity within a week or two after that,” he said, adding that “we don't know how long that immunity will last. We're going to have to follow that.  … We are not sure whether people will need booster shots a year out or at some period in the future.”

“While we often think about what we don't know, what we do know is that we've got this vaccine that is 95 percent efficacious,” said Gayle. “We have to keep reminding ourselves of what good news this is and understand that there's going to be more information coming out because this is still a new disease.” 

“The initial rollout has gone pretty well,” said Messonnier, who also noted that while most people agreed that health professionals and long-term care facility staff should have been the first to get vaccinated, there are other groups that should be first in line once you move past that group. She encouraged union members to work with their communities and health departments and use their organizing skills to help get the message out and figure out how to efficiently vaccinate their communities. “That's how we're going to get vaccine into every corner of the community.”

According to Dr. Marks, we could see vaccination trials in the next few months for older children, in the 12- to 15-year-old age range and then move to the younger population of children. “I think it might be a tall order to think we're going to get everyone vaccinated by fall,” said Marks, but he added, “the hope is by a combination of measures, including having teachers vaccinated and using appropriate social distancing, that we will begin to be able to get life back to normal for children come the fall.”

Dr. Messonnier agreed, adding that masks and social distancing will remain important. “Even if you're vaccinated, we still expect that you're going to need to wear a mask and be socially distant for a while longer ... because it has layers of protection; and if you layer the vaccine with social distancing, we're hoping that provides an environment that makes teachers and families feel safe for kids to go back to school.”

[Adrienne Coles, AFT] 

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