En español | Two of the country's leading doctors and COVID-19 experts — Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — urged patience and caution at an AARP tele-town hall focused on the status of the vaccines needed to combat the deadly disease.
Collins and Fauci reiterated the CDC's no travel recommendation, urging Americans to stay home for Thanksgiving. Each said they will be at home with their spouse and no other family for the holiday. They also took questions on the prospects for the much-anticipated coronavirus vaccines.
'An exhilarating 10 days’ for science
In the past week, two out of four companies whose vaccines are in the final stages of clinical trials in the U.S. announced their vaccines were about 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 in tens of thousands of volunteers enrolled in the trials. Pfizer, one of the vaccine developers, plans to submit its trial data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization (EUA) today. Biotech firm Moderna will likely apply for an EUA in the coming weeks. (An EUA is a green light, of sorts, for vaccine distribution. It's what is needed to get the vaccine to the general public more quickly than conventional FDA approval.)
"This is a breathtakingly good,” Collins said — especially for older adults, who have accounted for 95 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Older Americans made up a share of participants in both trials, “so it is looking to be the case that both of these vaccines actually work really well in older individuals,” Collins explained.
Data from the trials still needs a rigorous review from experts at the FDA and from outside advisory committees, Collins stressed. Still, he called the preliminary findings “reassuring and exciting. ... It has been an exhilarating 10 days, scientifically, to see the results,” he said.
Older adults will likely get the vaccine first
If a vaccine gets the OK from the FDA before the end of the year, supplies will likely be limited to about 40 million doses, which is enough to vaccinate 20 million people, because both vaccine candidates require two shots, Collins explained.
A group called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) will decide which Americans should receive the vaccine first while it is in limited supply, but in all likelihood, older adults and people with underlying health conditions, who are more at risk for hospitalization or death if infected with the coronavirus, will be among the first, along with health care personnel and other essential workers.
"There will be some challenging decisions to make for that first month, but then things will start to happen,” Collins said. More vaccine will be produced in the meantime, and another vaccine may even receive FDA authorization at the beginning of 2021, as two other companies have vaccines in late-stage clinical trials in the U.S.
"The bottom line is: I would say by the spring, people who are not in one of those high-risk groups will also start to have the chance to get access” to a vaccine. And by summer, he added, it should be more widely available.
Logistics still being determined
There are still plenty of logistical details that need to be worked out when it comes to how the vaccines will get into the arms of Americans. One major consideration is how to store them as they are delivered around the country and while they're being dispensed. This is especially a concern for Pfizer's vaccine, which needs to be kept at “extremely cold temperatures, about minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, until it's ready to be administered,” Collins explained.
Fauci, who joined the AARP tele-town hall event straight from a White House coronavirus task force meeting on the topic of distribution, said four-star Army Gen. Gustave Perna has been working on distribution plans “day and night for months,” and that the general has “worked out the details of how they're going to get [the vaccine] from plane to truck” and into pharmacies and doctors’ offices across the country, in both urban and rural areas.
“We were assured in the briefing of the vice president that both of the [vaccine candidates] will be able to be delivered and implemented appropriately,” Fauci said.
Immunity duration still unknown
How long a vaccine will provide protection from COVID-19 is “the big question that we all wish we had answers to,” Collins said. And it may be awhile before health experts know for sure.
In the meantime, “we should think about this as maybe in the same zone as a tetanus shot, where you might need a booster” every few years, Collins added. “If we're lucky, it would be like measles where once you're immune, you're immune for life, but that would be really lucky.”
Don't ignore your flu shot
Don't skip your flu shot this season in anticipation of a coronavirus vaccine, Fauci warned. “It's not one or the other,” he said.
While the flu and COVID-19 share many symptoms, they are different illnesses, caused by different viruses. And, experts say, it is possible to get infected by both at the same time or one right after the other, which can be especially dangerous.
Fauci's advice? Get the flu shot now, and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available in your community, get in line for that as well.
"You want to be doubly protected from the flu and from coronavirus,” he said.
If you start to experience flu-like symptoms this winter, pay attention to a few warning signs that could signal a coronavirus infection. Many people with COVID-19 report a loss of taste and smell, which is not a common flu symptom, Fauci said.
And if you experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, you should contact your physician immediately or go to the hospital. “It's something you should pay attention to because it's the first sign of getting into trouble,” Fauci added.
Persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake up or stay awake, and bluish lips or face also mean you should get immediate medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Stay the course on prevention
The recent vaccine developments represent a light at the end of the tunnel, but it's important to keep in mind that “the tunnel has still got a ways to go,” Collins said. And now, more than ever, is the time to “stay the course and even double down” on everyday prevention efforts that can help slow the spread of the virus until a vaccine is widely available.
"It's very important that we don't give up on this and feel frustrated,” Fauci added. “It's obviously inconvenient, particularly as you get to the holidays; everyone wants to be with their loved ones. Just keep in mind: Help is on the way with the vaccine. That should motivate us to double-down even more and keep ourselves safe.”