British health officials warn of additional burden on healthcare services over the holiday season as it is predicted that the coronavirus vaccines will have little effect on reducing hospital admissions over the next three months.
In a letter sent Nov. 4 to the U.K.’s healthcare staff, chief medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland said that the effects of vaccination will not likely be felt until spring and that workers should prepare for an “especially hard” winter.
“[Vaccine] deployment will have only a marginal impact in reducing numbers coming into the health service with COVID over the next three months,” wrote the officials, adding that Christmas social gatherings may put additional pressure on hospitals in the New Year.
Vaccination by itself will not solve the pandemic
The letter comes after the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency recently approved the vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech for emergency use. The country will first immunize care home staff and hospital inpatients and outpatients over the age of 80.
However, the health officials said that while the vaccine may prevent symptoms, their effects on virus transmission are still not fully known due to the lack of firm data. The World Health Organization (WHO) also acknowledged that vaccination will not by itself eliminate the deadly coronavirus, warning against complacency in the midst of upcoming vaccine rollout.
“Vaccines do not equal zero COVID,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan on a Friday virtual news conference. Global coronavirus infections have already passed 65 million and killed at least 1.5 million people since the virus emerged in China last December, according to the latest tally by international news agency Agence France-Presse.
Likewise, the health officials do not expect the virus to disappear even after the entire U.K. population has already been immunized. They noted that it is important to use the next couple of months as a learning opportunity to better manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This will allow us to have the best chance of a strong evidence base for managing it over the coming years,” said the officials. They implored healthcare workers to continue wearing their personal protective equipment even after vaccination and keep observing precautions while data is being gathered.
The officials also said that while the November lockdowns have improved the situation, the relaxation of restrictions over Christmas could very well change the outlook.
Vaccines may sideline healthcare workers while cases surge
The coronavirus vaccines also pose a major problem as their side effects can keep healthcare workers from working amid a surge in hospitalizations. Buddy Creech, one of the lead investigators of the Moderna vaccine trials and the director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, said that even though “it’s not 100 percent of people who have fevers and chills,” side effects strong enough to put health workers out of commission have to be raised before the vaccines are rolled out.
Many U.S. health systems are planning to immunize hospital staff with the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. However, late-stage trials have shown that the two vaccines can cause fatigue, headaches, muscle or joint pain and injection-site pain. (Related: Science? Pfizer, Moderna coronavirus vaccines have none.)
Hospital officials are already looking into a few strategies to keep units covered. Kristin Dascomb, medical director of infection prevention and employee health at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, said that they are planning to administer vaccines at the end of their workers’ week-long shifts. Other hospitals, such as the Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General), plan to stagger their staff.
But Mass General’s vice chair of emergency preparedness Paul Biddinger doubt that such strategies will be adequate as full data from Pfizer and Moderna’s late-stage trials remain undisclosed.
“It’s a little easier to create a model for how we should stagger employee vaccinations when we know how [often side effects] are occurring and with what severity,” said Biddinger.
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