• Joseph F. Berenato

Details about two COVID-19 vaccines


AtlantiCare doctors provide information about the two COVID-19 vaccines. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—Since Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 104 (2020) on March 16 limiting the size of public gatherings, imposing curfews and closing certain businesses, residents of Hammonton have been learning to cope with life during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.


Now, with the introduction of two COVID-19 vaccines—one developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, and one developed by Moderna Inc.—the tide may finally be turning in the fight against the pandemic.


“From a medical perspective, I’m really encouraged by the vaccine. I think that the efficacy rates that Pfizer and Moderna have been able to find, that 94 to 95 percent rate, I think that’s astounding. Certainly, I think it’s a really important component to us getting back to a new normal, post-COVID world where everything isn’t absorbed with COVID-19, and we can move on and do other things. This is really what was needed to come down the pipeline to really get us on track,” said Dr. Edward Fog, medical director of Urgent Care for AtlantiCare Physician Group.


Gemma Downham, Director of Infection Prevention for AtlantiCare, said that AtlantiCare began a vaccination clinic on December 15 with a group of providers and staff who volunteered to be “COVID-19 Vaccine Champions,” publicly receiving the vaccine in an attempt to alleviate the uncertainties that accompany a brand-new vaccine.


“We held clinics from December 15 to December 22, and we were providing the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine; that was the vaccine that we were allocated by the state. At the end of the day on December 22, we had vaccinated just over 2,400 individuals. That’s a lot in a week. We actually are postponing further vaccination clinics until after the holidays, because there are some supply chain challenges with the Pfizer vaccine. We want to make sure that we have enough vaccine available and ready to plan the clinics for all of the individuals that have elected voluntarily to receive it,” Downham said.


Downham said that, thus far, the reported side effects to the vaccine have been mild.


“Some have had some mild headaches. Some have had some nausea. The most common that we hear is that they have a sore arm for a day or two, so, so far, so good. There’s been a few different reactions, but they haven’t been the anaphylactic reactions like you saw happen in the U.K. when they first administered the vaccine. It’s like getting a flu shot,” Downham said.


Downham said that the seeming rapidity with which the vaccine was developed is due to proven methods and technology.


“The technology that they used to develop this vaccine, the messenger RNA (mRNA), has actually been available; that technology’s existed for quite a few years. It’s been used for different cancer vaccines, and it was the pipeline for the development of an Ebola and a Zika vaccine, as well. The technology was already there. The missing piece was the genome of this novel virus, which, as soon as that was posted, which was posted rather early on in December 2019 or January 2020, the pharmaceutical companies that already had the mRNA technology were able to get working on a vaccine right away,” Downham said.


Fog agreed.


“From a safety standpoint in the development of this, it was not rushed. They didn’t cut any corners. They didn’t miss any steps. Although the timeframe for the development of this vaccine seemed very rapid, it wasn’t the actual development of the vaccine itself or the safety protocols that were rapid; it was really cutting through that red tape, and really allowing it to progress without going through all the different hoops and things that, in the past, vaccine production has entailed. From the standpoint of the science behind it, the development of the vaccine and the assurance of safety protocols, none of that was accelerated. They went through the steps that they would go through for any other vaccine, making sure that this was an absolutely safe and stringent effort to develop this,” Fog said.


Dunham noted that much of the speed can be credited to Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership announced by President Donald J. Trump on May 15, 2020 which was formed to accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.


“What Operation Warp Speed did was remove some of that regulatory red tape to help speed things along, certainly without compromising any of the safety steps the FDA made sure were followed in the clinical trials as well as in the production of the vaccine itself,” Downham said.


Downham said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has presented a tiered approach for the administration of the vaccines.


“The first, 1A category, is the healthcare workers, and then long-term care facility residents and those who work in long-term care facilities. They just posted the next category, which is those who are over 75 with comorbidities, other existing medical conditions, as well as essential workers. As far as when the timeline is that it’s going to be available to the general public, it’s really going to depend on how quickly we can get through the CDC recommendations for the populations that have to be vaccinated first, as well as how soon the supply chain of the vaccine stabilizes,” Downham said.


Because of these variables, outlining a more specific timeline is difficult.


“I don’t think that anyone can comfortably tell you a month, or something like that, at this point. I know that all of the vaccine manufacturers are working as hard as they possibly can to make sure that production and transport of the vaccine is happening in a smooth and dependable manner,” Downham said.


The availability of two vaccines, however, will certainly aid in the efforts.


“It helps that now there’s both Pfizer and Moderna that’s starting to be shipped out, and Moderna is the vaccine that is going to be a little bit easier to use in the general public in community settings, because it comes in pre-filled syringes and doesn’t have quite the cold-storage temperature requirements that Pfizer does. That’s the vaccine that you’ll be able to use at some of the larger vaccination sites that the state is setting up,” Downham said.


Downham also noted that the differences between the two vaccines are small.


“Both are two-step vaccines ... They used the same technology; they’re very similar vaccines. There’s small nuances, such as the time frame in between the first and second doses, delivery method, but, really, for all intents and purposes, they are very similar vaccines,” Downham said.


Fog noted that, in general, the medical community has been embracing the vaccine.


“I think that we’re very encouraged by the vaccine itself and what it’s going to offer the patient populations in South Jersey and beyond. Certainly, it’s something that we’re all very enthusiastic about, encouraging people that, when it’s available, to not be afraid of it, and to get vaccinated,” Fog said.


Fog also spoke to the importance of still continuing to remain vigilant both during and even after individuals receive the vaccination.


“The vaccine, the idea of the vaccine is to make the person that’s vaccinated immune to further infections, but the problem is that there’s still the further potential of that person, although not getting infected, could still be a carrier. The recommendation still stands that you should be social distancing, you should be wearing masks, performing hand hygiene and all the stuff that we would recommend somebody who wasn’t vaccinated, for the reason of the potential to still transmit this despite not being infected,” Fog said.


In an effort to help combat the spread of infections, Fog said that AtlantiCare now offers COVID-19 testing at each of its Urgent Care facilities.


“We offer both PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rapid antigen testing, depending on the clinical situation and the need of the patient and the decision of the provider of what’s best for that patient. We offer that at all of our centers for symptomatic patients ... Our testing does require a quick telemedicine visit by a provider so that we can get the order placed. Both tests are nasal swaps, so either the rapid antigen test or the PCR, depending on what’s most appropriate for the patient,” Fog said.


Hammonton’s Urgent Care, Fog said, is one of the centers which offers testing for symptomatic patients.


“The Hammonton center, we do both PCR and antigen testing. Those patients that are seen there typically can be seen at the center itself, or they can be seen via telemedicine, whichever’s most appropriate and based on convenience of the patient if it’s appropriate to do telemedicine. Either test can be offered there,” Fog said.


Fog also said that AtlantiCare offers five locations that will administer tests to asymptomatic patients.


“With regards to the Hammonton area, the centers that we have in Galloway and Marlton are the two closest asymptomatic testing centers ... however, it’s very easy for patients who are asymptomatic in Hammonton to get an appointment and get tested at one of our locations that does asymptomatic testing as well,” Fog said.