Editor’s note: This commentary is by Trey Dobson, M.D., the chief medical officer at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
Within days of Vermont receiving its first shipment of the Covid-19 vaccine three weeks ago, concerns emerged regarding vaccine distribution, prioritization, and administration. The concerns were justifiable, given the incredibly high stakes we all face. With any initiative of this magnitude, opportunities for improvement undoubtedly emerge. And when we look at what has been learned and already accomplished in a very short amount of time, the vaccine program in Vermont is actually going quite well, and it is becoming more effective each day.
The Department of Health is working hard to coordinate vaccine deliveries from federal supplies and follow through with distribution to area health systems. All of the Vermont hospitals have put non-critical projects on hold in order to devote staff and resources to safe vaccine administration. The number one priority for all of us in health care in Vermont is to make the vaccine readily available to everyone and quickly pull ourselves out of this pandemic.
Vermont is currently in what is called Phase 1a, focusing on health care workers, first responders, long-term care facilities, and those in residential living arrangements. In Southern Vermont, over 1,500 individuals in these categories have received their first dose of vaccine at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, and vaccination continues at a pace of over 200 people daily. Similar numbers are occurring at other hospitals throughout the state.
The next group to be vaccinated will include those 75 years and older, followed later by younger age groups in a stepwise fashion dubbed “age bands.” The state is also working to include those individuals with certain high-risk medical conditions regardless of age.
The most significant barrier right now is vaccine supply. We are confident that the amount of vaccine will rise substantially within a few weeks. Vaccination of the public can then begin at large capacity sites being planned in a collaboration among the Vermont Department of Health, hospitals, pharmacies, and other entities, similar to the pop-up testing sites that have been so successful in our state.
To reach immunity in the population, we need to vaccinate a lot of people, and we need to do so quickly. We cannot have vaccine sitting idle. Vaccine must be given whenever it is available and not reserved for certain populations. It does little good to vaccinate only a small portion of the population or drag the process out over a long period of time. We cannot tolerate the death rate, hospitalizations, school closures, and economic devastation brought onto us by Covid-19. None of us wants to continue wearing masks, remain under travel restrictions, and be separated from our family and friends.
Fortunately, vaccine supply will soon increase substantially, and Vermont has the people and processes in place to get the job done. Capable organizations and individuals at both state and community levels are working incredibly hard on this initiative above everything else. By early summer, vaccination for all Vermonters will be readily available. Continue to wear masks and avoid gatherings. Encourage your friends and family to get vaccinated as it becomes available. Simply put, we can pull ourselves out of this mess. Stay positive, Vermont.