CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa shares 'heartening' vaccine news, as pandemic pressure mounts

'It has been a very long pandemic for our staff'

FILE - In this March 16, 2020, file photo, Neal Browning receives a shot in the first-stage safety study of a potential
FILE — In this March 16, 2020, file photo, Neal Browning receives a shot in the first-stage safety study of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. Moderna Inc., said Monday, Nov. 16, its COVID-19 vaccine is proving to be highly effective in a major trial. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

IOWA CITY — Despite reaching a new high of treating 100 COVID-19 patients and revealing plans to next week launch the second phase of a surge plan, University Iowa Health Care scientists Wednesday shared hopeful affirmations of vaccines on the horizon showing far better efficacy than expected or hoped.

“This data is better than any of us anticipated,” Patricia Winokur, Carver College of Medicine executive dean and Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation unit director, told the Iowa Board of Regents.

“We were hoping that it would be somewhere around 60 or 70 percent effective,” she said. “The fact that it’s 95 percent effective is very heartening.”

UIHC is serving as one of the clinical trial sites for a Pfizer vaccine that overnight upgraded its previously announced 90-percent efficacy rate to 95 percent.

Half of Pfizers’ pool of 44,000 research subjects got a placebo and half got the vaccine. After months of trials, 170 people overall had COVID-19 infections. But 162 of them were from the placebo group.

“Only eight occurred in the vaccine group,” Winokur said.

She noted Pfizer identified 10 instances of “severe infection” in the study. “Nine of which were in the placebo group. So lots of very promising data — better than we anticipated,” Winokur said.

Moderna, another company in fast pursuit of a vaccine, also is reporting nearly 95 percent efficacy among its 30,000 participants.

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Now, Winokur said, the companies are following safety protocols — watching for side effects and ensuring the vaccines don’t backfire and increase severity.

Side effects reported so far are mild and typical, like those that can occur with seasonal flu vaccines, according to Winokur. Results to date show participants ages 18 to 64 reported fever, chills and fatigue more often than those between 65 and 85. More reported the short-lived side effects after the second of two required doses.

“The luxury of having participated in this Pfizer vaccine trial is I’ve seen firsthand how significant these side effects are,” Winokur said. “And I will tell you, most people continue to work. Most people have a very abrupt stop of their fatigue, usually after 24 hours, very occasionally lasting 48 hours. They responded very nicely to Tylenol or ibuprofen.”

Winokur noted that typical trials distribute experimental vaccines to 1,000 to 3,000 people.

“Think about it. We have 44,000 people that were studied with the Pfizer vaccine, 30,000 people that were studied with Moderna,” she said. “That’s 30 to 35,000 people that got active vaccine — tenfold above what we normally see in an approval process.”

‘Very Long Pandemic’

Despite that hopeful outlook, UIHC administrators Wednesday also reported a stressed health care staff — strained under the weight of a dragging pandemic that’s worsening instead of waning.

After UIHC on Monday reported treating 85 COVID-19 inpatients there, Chief Executive Officer Suresh Gunasekaran on Wednesday told regents the campus is up to “100 patients in house” — a peak out of its total 850 beds. Before deploying a first phase of its surge plan earlier this month, UIHC had 100 intensive care unit beds.

That total has expanded under the surge plan, and Gunasekaran said to expect another surge phase next week. That could involve another increase in bed capacity, expanded access to its flu-like-illness clinic and more visitor restrictions.

Limits already in place restrict adult visiting hours to between 1 and 3 p.m., two hours shorter. Visitors also can’t stay during surgeries or procedures.

“These visitor restrictions are not anything that I take pleasure in,” Gunasekaran said. “I think it’s really important, when you’re having these kinds of things happen at the university, to have a visitor. But with the high positivity rate in the community, it just didn’t seem safe.”

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The hospital system has had to reassign employees to manage call, clinic and inpatient volumes. An email went out Tuesday evening from UIHC’s director of advanced practice providers asking the campus’ advanced registered nurse practitioners to help in the ICU.

“I have a very important and humble request,” wrote Director Maria Lofgren. “During these absolute unprecedented times — we are in desperate need of help for NURSES in our ICUs.”

She reported having contacted the Iowa Board of Nursing to confirm that the advanced registered nurse practitioners “are legally able to work as registered nurses.”

UIHC officials told The Gazette that no one would take a pay cut if he or she offered to help in a lower-paid position.

In fact, Gunasekaran and Vice President for Medical Affairs Brooks Jackson on Wednesday morning emailed hospital employees to thank them for their efforts and offer a “special lump sum payment of $600 to be paid on December 1 to approximately 11,500 team members.”

That, according to the message, includes nurses and caregivers, service employees, maintenance workers, lab technicians and clerical staff.

The university still is, however, “continuing down the path of having staff give back vacation or take unpaid leave as one of our expenses management activities,” according to UIHC Chief Financial Officer Bradley Haws.

With the UIHC taking a growing number of COVID-19 patients from smaller maxed-out hospitals and clinics, Gunasekaran urged Iowans to double down on precautions — particularly as the holidays approach.

“It has been a very long pandemic for our staff,” he said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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