IOWA CITY — The arrival of a vaccine that purports a 95 percent rate in preventing infection of the novel coronavirus marks a huge success, Dr. Pat Winokur, infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said in a public forum Monday night, the day the first doses were administered.
“The fact (the vaccine) is so effective is going to help a lot,” she said during a Facebook Live event, hosted by UIHC, that took questions from the public. “It means we’re going to be able to start seeing effects on hospitalizations and death rates even faster. And that’s so rewarding.”
Winokur is the principal investigator of UI’s portion of the clinical trials of the COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech that made its debut at sites across the country earlier that day.
Immunizing the first priority groups, which include front-line health care workers as well as staff and residents at long-term care facilities, could take months. And Winokur predicted the vaccine won’t be distributed “in a more free fashion” to other priority groups for some time, either. So despite the major milestone this week — which to many indicates the light at the end of the tunnel — Winokur advised it is important Iowans do not let their guard down for socially distancing, wearing masks and practicing other public health safety measures.
Based on current estimates, she said vaccinating enough people to achieve herd immunity against the virus won’t take place until sometime in fall 2021.
Most of the public’s questions for Winokur on Monday evening were centered on the potential adverse side effects and whether certain populations, including those who are immunocompromised, could see negative consequences as a result of the vaccine.
Winokur said nothing in the vaccine’s data suggests it would be unsafe for those who are immunocompromised, but noted there was not enough research done for those patients who take medications that cause immunosuppression.
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The UIHC infectious disease specialist said the vaccine was highly effective among elderly populations and others with chronic medical conditions that put them most at risk for complications from a COVID-19 infection.
Studies still need to be conducted on children under the age of 16, as the Pfizer vaccine has received approval to be administered only to those 16 years and older.
Winokur said clinical trials will begin first on those between the ages of 12 and 15, and will work their way into younger ages over time.
She also said clinical trials for pregnant women are also in the works.
Nearly 1,000 doses of the vaccine, which received federal emergency use authorization late Friday, arrived at UIHC’s doorstep Monday. The same day, UIHC administered the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine to dozens of health care workers, making them the first Iowans — and some of the first Americans — to be inoculated against the novel coronavirus since the approval.
“This is history,” she said. “Your kids will be reading about this, your kids’ kids will be reading about this. This is a historic moment.”
Winokur was among the UIHC employees who received the first doses.
As of Monday evening, Winokur said she was “feeling great” and reported no symptoms hours after receiving her first dose. But even if she were to experience the minor symptoms reported with this vaccine, she was more than willing to put herself into the recipient pool.
“I trust this vaccine,” she said. “I’ve seen the data, I’ve watched individuals in the clinical trials and I’m comfortable with it.”
A member of the public pointed out that some individuals’ chances of dying as a result of COVID-19 are very low, and asked why those members of the population should be encouraged to seek out a vaccine.
Winokur said people with this mindset should broaden their thinking.
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“Death is certainly the worst outcome, but there are a lot of people who are critically ill that do eventually survive, but they have long and rocky hospitalizations. There are some people, even who are relatively insignificantly ill, that are showing chronic conditions,” Winokur said.
”Also, the hospitals are overwhelmed. So we are able to keep a lot of people alive — and we’re thankful for that — but the intensive care units and clinics are very, very busy and this is reducing the time that we have to give to people that have regular medical conditions,” she said.
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