Viviana Gourley, medical assistant at Salud Medical Center, waits between patients at the center's COVID-19 testing area on Wednesday, April 29. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

People who have spent months treating Covid patients and cleaning their hospital rooms will begin receiving a Covid vaccine this week in Salem as Oregon starts its vaccination campaign.

Salem Health officials said they expect 975 vaccine doses later this week, enough to vaccinate about half of the 1,800 hospital employees who are regularly in contact with Covid patients.

Vaccines for the general public remain months away, likely in the spring of 2021, Oregon Health Authority said in an announcement Monday. But for local hospitals, the arrival comes as welcome news.

“We’re all hopeful that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dana Hawkes, director of nursing and clinical practice for Salem Health medical group, who’s helping plan the hospital’s vaccination campaign.

She said it would take about three weeks for the hospital to vaccinate all employees caring for Covid patients.

At Santiam Hospital, emergency department director Dr. Steve Vets said he was “waiting with bated breath” for the arrival. As of Monday, Vets said he hadn’t been told how many doses to expect but was hoping to receive them days before Christmas.

Oregon expects to receive 35,000 doses this week after the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech cleared federal approval for emergency use on Dec. 11. Several Portland-area hospitals received their shares of that allocation Monday.

A team of medical experts from Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada reviewed the vaccine trial data and confirmed the Pfizer shot is safe and effective on Dec. 12.

Those vaccines will be distributed to hospitals around the state, allocated based on the number of employees and population the hospital serves, OHA officials said Friday.

The state plans to direct about 10,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to pharmacies who are under contract to vaccinate residents and employees of skilled nursing facilities, said Rex Larsen, Oregon Health Authority vaccine unit planning manager.

Facilities are working to set up vaccination events with pharmacies approved for distribution, and expect vaccinations could begin as soon as Dec. 21, said Rosie Ward, spokeswoman for the Oregon Health Care Association, a long-term care trade association.

Skilled nursing facilities are a type of long-term care facility where residents have more complex medical needs. Larsen said the state will monitor progress toward vaccination at those facilities before making the vaccine available to assisted living and other long-term care facilities.

Those facilities are a high priority for vaccination because older people with underlying health conditions are at highest risk for serious cases of Covid. In Marion County, 89 residents of long-term care facilities have died with Covid since the pandemic began, 63% of all county deaths related to the virus as of Dec. 1.

Weekly shipments of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to continue. Later in December, Oregon is also slated to receive tens of thousands of doses of a second vaccine, developed by Moderna, if that vaccine clears FDA approval. That approval could come later this week.

Oregon expects to finish vaccinating health care and emergency medical workers, as well as long-term care facility residents and employees by the end of January, OHA spokesman Jonathan Modie said.

Next in line are “essential workers,” a broad category that could include bus drivers, teachers, grocery store workers, food processing employees and more. People over 65 and people with underlying medical conditions are also included.

A state committee is currently being set up to advise OHA on how to prioritize those doses.

Modie said Oregon waited until December to begin that process because with vaccine doses limited, the state wanted to prioritize planning the first stages of the rollout to hospitals and long-term care facilities.

He said the state will better be able to plan for subsequent groups once they have better information about vaccine availability, but OHA hopes to complete vaccination for essential workers, seniors and people with underlying health conditions by late spring.

Early shipments won’t be enough to cover all hospital employees, and hospitals have been told to prioritize their staff based on their proximity to Covid patients.

Hawkes said Salem Health’s count of 1,800 employees slated to receive the first doses includes doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other health care providers who work in the intensive care unit, the emergency room and other inpatient units where Covid patients are concentrated. The health system has about 6,000 total employees.

About 25% of those expected to receive the vaccine in the coming weeks are non-clinical staff, she said, including people in nutrition, housekeeping, transport and environmental services who bring Covid patients food and clean their rooms.

Both vaccines require two doses for full effectiveness, spaced three to four weeks apart.

Side effects on the Pfizer vaccine were typically mild, but often included symptoms of flu-like illness including fatigue, fever, chills and joint pain.

Because vaccine recipients may need a day or two to recover from vaccination, Salem Health will schedule employees to receive it ahead of their days off so they have time to recover.

The vaccine is optional, and Hawkes said some employees may opt out or wait until later to receive the shot.

“Some may want it but not in the first round. They may want to wait and see how it affects their friends,” she said.

The hospital has ordered a freezer for ultra-cold storage, capable of holding the Pfizer vaccine at -70° Celsius, said Josh Free, chief pharmacy officer. That’s expected to arrive in the next month, but until then, he said the hospital can keep doses on dry ice.

Because of the ultra-cold storage required for the Pfizer vaccine, later phases of Oregon’s plan call for hospitals to serve as distribution hubs for the region, since few clinics have the freezer facilities needed to keep the vaccine cold for more than a few days.

That need is likely months away, but Free said Salem Health is willing to step up.

“Our intention is to take care of the community. If that is as a hub and we can do so safely, we want to be able to do that,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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