• Sun. Mar 7th, 2021

New Pandemic Plight: Hospitals Are Running Out of Vaccines

Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, is now struggling with a similar problem as the hospitals serving some of its poorest residents run out of the vaccine, prompting some public health experts to question why doses are not being made more available to vulnerable communities.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

“These are our frontline workers who are at the greatest risk of contracting the virus and at the greatest risk of spreading it to others,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. “We would be able to resolve the pandemic in Harris County quicker if we could get a sufficient number of vaccines,” she added, referring to the county encompassing much of Houston.

Adding to the turmoil, just days after Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, praised the state’s vaccine rollout at a meeting in Houston where Democratic city and county officials were excluded from participating, the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, also a Republican, sent a letter on Thursday to the state’s Expert Vaccination Allocation Panel urging its members to fix the problems.

“Right now, in many cities and counties when an announcement of available vaccinations is made, website sign-up pages crash and phone calls go unanswered,” Mr. Patrick said in the letter. “Texans need to have a better understanding of the time it will take for everyone to be vaccinated in order to reduce lines, confusion and frustration.”

The sense of chaos afflicting the distribution efforts, not just in Texas but in an array of states, is laying bare how local officials are struggling to fill the void left by the lack, until this week, of a comprehensive response at the federal level.

Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said the most obvious problem with vaccine administration in the San Francisco area was clear: “There’s not enough doses, period,” he said. “That’s it. Everything would work fine if you had enough doses.”

The public health department in San Francisco and hospitals in the city were “caught by surprise” by the lack of doses, Dr. Rutherford said, and by the eligibility expansion to those 65 and older, which likely strained the system. Varying vaccine distribution channels — such as Kaiser Permanente and the University of California, San Francisco — receive the doses on their own, he said, further complicating an already convoluted distribution system.