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Vaccine is coming, but what does that mean?
Zechman lady - Michelle Fiscus in August.jpg
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, shown during a talk in McMinnville, says coronavirus vaccine won’t be available to everyone initially once it gains approval from the FDA.

A pair of blockbuster anti-COVID vaccines may start arriving in Warren County before Christmas. So let’s throw a party and return to pre-pandemic “normal life.” Right?

Well, not so fast, Tennessee’s top immunizer, Michelle Fiscus, MD FAAP, cautions in a WCPI 91.3 interview airing this week.

Doctors and scientists at the Food and Drug Administration will meet Dec. 10 to rule on final approval of the vaccines, which are wrapping up large-scale trials designed to assess the safety and efficacy of the products.  

In separate announcements earlier this month, American pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna reported their products were 90-95% effective in protecting the test volunteers from contracting the novel coronavirus responsible for some 250,000 excess deaths in the United States alone.    

“It’s going to be awhile,” Dr. Fiscus replied when asked when COVID-19 will no longer be a major threat to public health and, by extension, to the economy and social gatherings.

“Certainly the vaccines can go a long way toward getting people protected,” she observed. “It is a combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions — wearing facemasks, social distancing, washing hands — that can end up beating this down. If the spread in the community is really high, there is only so much a vaccine can do if you’re bombarded with the virus.”   

The first batch of vaccines have been designated for hospital employees, first-responders, and workers in long-term care facilities, said Fiscus,  medical director of the Tennessee Department of Health’s Vaccine-Preventable Disease and Immunizations Program. The second round of COVID shots in the two-injection series, will be for outpatient medical providers such a clinicians and dentists.  

The last group in the first phase of vaccine availability will be persons over 64 and those with two or more chronic medical conditions, as well as residents in long-term care and congregate housing.

One of the challenges for public health officials like Fiscus is accelerating the vaccine delivery program with a limited number of trained providers. Another hurdle will be convincing vaccine-hesitant and vaccine-resistant people the new anti-coronavirus injections have been demonstrated to be safe, with extremely low probability of unwanted side effect.

“I think the term ‘Operation Warp Speed’ didn’t do us any favors with folks who are already worried about vaccines in general,” said Fiscus, noting the terminology could suggest the vaccines were rushed into production without proper testing and quality checks.  

“It’s really important for the public to understand that is not the case.  These vaccines are going through exactly the same steps every other vaccine has gone through.”

The half-hour interview will be broadcast this Tuesday at 5 p.m., Wednesday at 5 a.m., Thursday at 1 p.m., and Friday at 1 a.m.