The advent of two COVID-19 vaccines just 10 months after the first reported case of infection in the U.S. is extraordinary. Vaccine development typically takes 10 to 15 years. Some take much longer. A vaccine for HIV, for example, remains elusive, some 40 years after the first reported AIDS cases in the U.S. The COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use this month are truly our hope on the horizon.
For Florida’s hospitals and their physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, environmental services staff, and other health care heroes who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic since it began, these vaccines are a turning point. Tragically, around the globe, more than 300,000 health care workers have been infected, and more than 2,500 have died.
Unfortunately, the vaccines arrive at a time when distrust and skepticism of immunization are at an all-time high, and overall vaccination rates among children and adults are lagging. Florida ranks 47th in vaccination rates for children and adolescents and 49th for adults for flu and tetanus vaccines. More than one-third of Americans report being unwilling to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The good news, however, is that number is getting smaller over time with education and evidence of the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.
That evidence is clear. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 95 percent effective. Moderna’s is 94.1 percent. The annual flu shot’s effectiveness at preventing illness, for comparison, ranges from a low of 10 percent to a high of 60 percent. In addition, neither COVID-19 vaccine contains the virus that causes illness. While temporary side effects, such as fever, chills, and injection site soreness, appear common, they fortunately do not appear to be long lasting or life threatening.
This month, tens of thousands of Florida’s health care workers rolled up their sleeves for the first of two inoculations. They trust the science. They trust the approval process. They trust their colleagues. Over the next several weeks, more health care professionals as well as vulnerable elderly living in long-term care facilities will follow their lead and be vaccinated. Throughout 2021 as more doses become available, more Floridians of all ages and walks of life can be vaccinated.
Florida’s hospitals are and will be crucial to the safe, evidence-based, and equitable vaccination process. Five hospitals initially received the initial Pfizer vaccine doses and collaborated with other hospitals in their regions on vaccine distribution. More hospitals are slated to receive the Moderna vaccine directly. But collaboration and communication among hospitals and other community stakeholders will be ongoing, just as it has since the start of the pandemic and just as it has in other emergencies and crises. As community-based organizations, hospitals routinely convene other local healthcare leaders, public officials, and community organizations to effectively respond to local needs through regional collaborations.
During the worst of the pandemic, hospitals supported their communities by setting up drive-through testing sites, sharing best practices with post-acute facilities, working with local employers and schools on safe reopening, and sharing critical resources, staff, and equipment with other hospitals. These relationships and models of collaboration forged during the pandemic’s worst will be essential as we enter this new phase of the pandemic, one that hopefully heralds its end.
The COVID-19 vaccines represent the best of science. They represent progress and optimism. They are a promise of a brighter future. Florida’s hospitals are honored to have an essential role in delivering that promise.
Mary Mayhew is president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, the state’s largest hospital advocacy group.