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Health care workers, nursing homes should get COVID-19 vaccine earlier, CDC panel says

The recommendations made on Tuesday by the CDC advisory committee about who should get the earliest doses of a COVID vaccine kick off a series of crucial decision points for the coming weeks, including how states make their own decisions about distributing a vaccine. Dr. Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The recommendations made late today by an advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control about whom should get the earliest doses of a COVID vaccine kick off a series of crucial decisions in the coming weeks.

    Today's vote is not binding, but it is expected to influence how states make their own decisions about distributing the vaccines.

    There are many tough questions ahead.

    Amna Nawaz explores some of them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The advisory committee said today that about 24 million people, health care personnel and older Americans living in nursing homes and other facilities, should receive the first doses of a vaccine.

    But even distributing those early doses will take more time than many people think. CDC officials say, initially, there will only be enough doses to vaccinate between two and five million people a week. Determining who gets priority after that initial wave is even more complicated.

    Now, this all comes as nearly 37,000 Americans died of COVID-19 last month. That's the most in any month since the early days of the pandemic.

    For more on all of this, I'm joined by Dr. Paul Offit. He is a member of an FDA advisory committee on vaccines. He is also director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

    Dr. Offit, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    When we look at the 24 million people who have now been given the highest priority, that's still a lot of people. And they can't be vaccinated all at once.

    So, even within that group, how do you decide who gets it first? And who makes that call?

  • Paul Offit:

    It's going to be hard.

    I know, at our hospital, we're trying to prioritize among the health care workers which health care workers are most at risk, and those who are — for example, in the emergency department, who are constantly coming into contact with children who potentially are excreting this virus. So, I think it's going to be really a challenge.

    I think the hardest part of all this is that, initially, we have about 40 million doses that are going to be available, which is 20 million people of the 24 million in just the first group. And we still have to go to the second group and third group before we ever get to the general population.

    And remember that we're not quite there yet. We're still sort of in the science-by-press-release moment here. These phase three trials, these large trials by Pfizer and Moderna haven't been published yet. So, the FDA advisory committee needs to approve this. The advisory committee to the CDC needs to approve this.

    I think that's all going to happen in the month of December, in all likelihood, and then these vaccines will start rolling out. But what's hardest about this is that, obviously, I mean, here's a virus that has killed more than 260,000 people this year. These next couple months are going to be awful.

    And you wish you had enough vaccine to vaccinate everybody, but we don't. It's going to be a limited edition vaccine initially. And I think that's going to make it very valuable.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let's talk about the next potential group after that.

    We have this initial set of guidance from the advisory committee, but people talk a lot about essential workers, anyone who's classified that way by their state or municipality. And a lot of people don't realize you're talking about many millions of more people; 87 million Americans qualify as essential workers.

    And that includes a whole host of different roles, police and firefighters, education workers, food service and agriculture workers, transportation and waste workers.

    Dr. Offit, when you look at that next potential tranche of people, 87 million more, two to five million doses a week, how long are we talking about it will take just to get through these highest priority groups?

  • Paul Offit:

    Well, the hardest part is making the vaccine, getting it out there, and making sure that people are getting a two-dose vaccine, meaning you get the first dose. Then you have to come — make sure you come back three weeks later to get that second dose.

    And one of the vaccines has sort of difficult storage and handling, in that it has to be shipped and stored at minus-70 degrees Centigrade, which means dry ice. It then can go in the refrigerator for only a day or two. And then, once it's reconstituted, you only have about six hours to give it, and it comes in multidose vials.

    So, there's going to be a lot of challenges here for this — for this needed product. I mean, this is, I think, our way out of this mess. This is the product that I think can save our lives. You just wish you had enough of it all at the beginning. We don't.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You are mentioning the challenges. And one of those is trust in this vaccine.

    When you look at some of the latest numbers in terms of whether or not American adults even trust the vaccine and say that they will get it, Gallup conducted a recent poll at the end of October. It was asking people about it.

    And 58 percent of those polled said they're willing to get the vaccine. That number is up slightly from September numbers. But, still, Dr. Offit, 42 percent of American adults say they would not get the vaccine. That's a significant number of people you're talking about. How much of a challenge is that, when you're talking about getting to that light at the end of the pandemic tunnel?

  • Paul Offit:

    Right.

    So, that poll was conducted in October. So, really, what they were asking is, would you get a theoretical COVID-19 vaccine, because the vaccine wasn't in existence yet.

    I mean, now we know more of the details of the vaccine. We know, at least from the top-line data, that it appears to be 95 percent effective, which is remarkable, that it appears to be as effective in people over 60, that it appears to be 90 to 100 percent effective in preventing severe disease. I think, when you ask people the question that way, then how will they answer?

    And, remember, these trials, the Pfizer trial is a 44,000-person trial. The Moderna trial is a 30,000-person trial. That's as big as any vaccine trial. That's as big as any pediatric vaccine trial. The only difference — really, the only difference is that the length of time in which you're seeing effectiveness is relatively short.

    You can only say it's effective for a few months. You can't say necessarily it's going to be highly effective six months later, or a year later, or two years later.

    On the other hand, you're not going to do two-or-three-year trials with these vaccines, when a quarter-of-a-million people are dying a year. So — and I think it's not exactly a leap to believe that, if something's 95 percent effective after two or three months, it's likely to be highly effective six months or a year later.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very briefly, Dr. Offit, before I let you go, in just a few seconds, how many people are we looking at need to be vaccinated, need to get this vaccine before we can consider ourselves at a safe level of immunity?

  • Paul Offit:

    I would imagine about two-thirds of the American population would need to be vaccinated before we can say comfortably that we have stopped the spread of this virus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All right, we will follow in the weeks ahead. It's some good news for people there, though.

    That's Dr. Paul Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Paul Offit:

    Thank you.

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