Vaccinations have begun in Santa Clara County as of Thursday and the first group to receive them are 210 staff members at skilled nursing facilities.
“This [holiday] season is all about hope,” Board President Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. “Now we don’t have to be wishful about it, the vaccine is here. There is hope.”
The vaccines arrived on Tuesday at the county’s Public Health Department, which is in charge of facilitating vaccines to skilled nursing facility staff and residents.
The first doses will vaccinate 6,000 skilled nursing facility staff with the capacity to vaccinate 210 people per day at the county’s clinic located at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.
Other boxes are still en route to local hospitals, and vaccinations of frontline workers at acute hospitals are expected to begin as early as Friday, said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, COVID-19 Testing and Vaccine Officer.
Both staff and residents at skilled nursing facilities and frontline workers at acute hospitals are in the most high-risk sector and subsequently the highest priority group, known as group 1A, for the vaccine, as set by federal and state guidelines.
“The residents in the skilled nursing facilities represent 5 percent of all of our cases but represent 45 percent of our deaths,” Fenstersheib said. “So, we want to vaccinate and protect our residents and so by doing the staff first that will protect the residents who will eventually get vaccinated.”
Staff being vaccinated at those facilities include nurses and other workers who are interacting with residents frequently, like janitorial staff.
Over the next two weeks, the county expects to have 68,000 vaccines composed of two separate allotments of the Pfizer vaccine and an allotment of the Moderna vaccine pending FDA approval.
These will all be dedicated to the first priority group 1A, but over the weekend, the federal advisory committee will begin drafting and defining the next group set to receive early vaccines — other essential workers who will fall into the 1B priority group.
It is still not clear who will be part of that 1B priority group, Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said.
It will also be months before the vaccine is open to all county residents and total vaccination is expected to be complete around the summer.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine are similar in efficacy and require two doses. Pfizer is 95 percent effective and requires a second dose after 21 days and Moderna is 94.1 percent effective and requires a second dose after 28 days.
All vaccines allotted for the next two weeks will just be used for the first dose.
“The county will not hold some for the second dosage,” Fenstersheib said.
Both vaccines use mRNA technology, which can feel more intense and have more adverse side effects than other routine vaccinations like the flu shot. Some reported side effects include pain, headache and fatigue, according to reports by the FDA.
This may be especially true for the Moderna vaccine as 16 percent of people in clinical trials said they experienced a “severe” adverse reaction — a classification by the FDA that describes side effects that require medical attention or prevent people from resuming their daily activities, according to an FDA briefing document for its Thursday meeting.
But still, Fenstersheib and other county leaders say the arrival and administering of vaccines “a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel.”
And Santa Clara County is not out of the dark tunnel just yet.
“Certainly, this third surge has challenged us in a way that the previous two surges did not,” Cody said. “We are seeing an average of over 1,000 cases per day, we have passed the 52,000-mark residents of our county who have been diagnosed.”
As of Thursday, a total of 566 county residents have died from COVID-19 and 566 are currently in the hospital, Cody said. Intensive care unit beds in the region are at 13.1 percent and in the county, there are about 40 ICU beds currently available.
“We cannot normalize the devastation around us but we can have hope and see a path forward in getting ourselves out of this current crisis and seeing that this pandemic won’t last forever,” Cody continued.
In the meantime, county officials are pleading with residents to adhere to health orders and safety precautions by wearing a mask, staying home and avoiding gatherings.