The Food and Drug Administration looks set to allow emergency authorization of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine shortly. With that, vaccinations will likely begin soon for health care workers and people in nursing homes.
Dr. Jeff Bahr, who oversees medical group operations in the Advocate Aurora Health system, says his hospitals in the state "are ready to go as soon as we get that crucial green light."
Wisconsin has about 450,000 health care workers. Bahr tells Ari Shapiro on NPR's All Things Considered that his hospitals have prioritized "front-line critical care givers" who work with COVID-19 patients.
"We're fairly confident that anyone who wants the vaccine, who is categorized as one of those front-line clinical care team members, will be able to get the vaccine when we have it available to distribute," Bahr says.
"If those people happen to overlap categories, because we do have physicians, nurses, technicians and therapists who themselves have risk factors and who are braving this pandemic, they will be eligible for that vaccine as well."
Bahr doesn't expect the hospitals' staff to be able to relax once vaccinated. It's unclear if a vaccine would prevent a vaccinated person from spreading the coronavirus to others, so "we can't let our guard down," he says.
Administering the vaccine will take trained staff. Hospitals around the country are already strained by staff shortages. Advocate Aurora Health is taking "an all-hands-on-deck mentality and approach" to staffing up, Bahr says.
"That includes everyone from our existing staff to maybe recently retired medical professionals, nurses, doctors. Our student learners and trainees, who are more than capable of administering a vaccine, they will be engaged as well."
Bahr says he doesn't think people should be nervous about receiving a vaccine from a trainee. Students and trainees have been doing it "on some level" already, he says.
"We have checks and balances. We have appropriate supervision. And again, I wouldn't say that it is a zero-risk procedure, as it were, but it is certainly not the most complicated thing that we do. And it is something that we can observe and teach and correct on the fly if needed."
Another hurdle in getting the vaccine out is the storage. Pfizer's vaccine needs to be stored in special, ultra-cold freezers. Once removed from cold storage, doses need to be used in a certain amount of time.
"We're confident that we do or will" have the necessary equipment, Bahr says, and adds that Advocate Aurora Health is "more than up to the task" of delivering vaccines in the short time window.
The current situation — creating a vaccine in record time, adjusting massive logistics operations on the fly — is "almost like building an airplane while you're flying it," Bahr says. "You're accumulating data on people real time and getting it to the people in the labs real time so that they can get to work. Never before in human history have we seen a turnaround time like this."
Dave Blanchard and Jan Johnson produced and edited the audio interview.