Health care professionals in Lincoln and other parts of the state are starting to see the finish line in sight when it comes to vaccines for COVID-19.
Officials from CHI Health on Tuesday said they believe they and other hospitals in the state could start receiving vaccine doses and vaccinating their staffs the week of Dec. 14.
The Food and Drug Administration is set to hold a public advisory committee hearing Dec. 10 on Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, and emergency use authorization could come the next day. Infrastructure is already in place to ship doses immediately.
A hearing on a COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna is set for Dec. 17.
CHI Health Pharmacy Division Vice President Mike Tiesi said he's heard an estimate that Nebraska will get about 15,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine initially, which would be enough to vaccinate front-line health workers across the state.
CHI Health has spent months preparing for the arrival of the vaccine, including buying several large freezers needed to store the Pfizer version, which must be kept at minus 70 degrees.
Those freezers are set up at CHI Health hospitals across the state, including at CHI St. Elizabeth in Lincoln.
"We do have everything in place to start vaccinations," Tiesi said, "minus the vaccines."
Despite requiring its employees to get a flu shot every year, CHI Health CEO Dr. Cliff Robertson said the health system will not require its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, although it will "strongly encourage" them to.
Robertson said that's because the COVID-19 vaccine is new, and though it is presumed to be safe, it does not have the decades of data behind it that the flu vaccine does.
However, Robertson said he's willing to be a guinea pig for the vaccine to convince others it is safe.
"I'd be happy to be first in line," he said.
Bryan Health does not plan to require its employees to get the vaccine, either, at least not initially, said Bob Ravenscroft, Bryan's vice president of advancement. He said that could change as the situation evolves, but he believes there will be strong demand from most employees for the vaccine.
"I can tell you, with a fair degree of confidence, that the vast, vast, vast majority of our team will be lining up to get this," Ravenscroft said.
As for when Bryan will receive the vaccine and how much it will get, he said officials hope to find out that information this week, possibly in the next day or two.
Once it does have vaccine available, Ravenscroft said Bryan has a three-tiered plan for how to distribute it to employees.
The first tier will be clinical staff, such as nurses and doctors, who work directly with COVID-19 patients for long periods in what are considered "hot" or "warm" zones, such as in intensive care, the emergency room and urgent care centers.
The second tier will be clinical staff, as well as others such as security guards and cleaning personnel who might have infrequent contact with COVID-19 patients in "cool" zones.
The third tier is all other staff at the hospital who don't work in areas where there are COVID-19 patients.
Ravenscroft said the prospect of the vaccine is presenting a "light at the end of the tunnel" for staff at Bryan.
"I can't stress enough how excited we are about this," he said.
CHI's Robertson agreed, saying its workers are tired "and they're ready for a break."
"Our health care workers really hope that this vaccine is the beginning of the end, so to speak," he said.
And it's not just health care workers. Plans are being finalized to distribute vaccines to the general population, focusing first on essential workers and the most vulnerable.
Robertson said the effectiveness of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines "really starts to provide some hope that maybe in a handful of months — six months, eight months from now — we'll be back to a more normal way of life."
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