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Health officials: “Take the vaccine you’re offered”

By Jeri Chadwell

After receiving emergency approval from both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the weekend, drug maker Johnson & Johnson is set to ship nearly four million doses of its vaccine this week—and 3,600 of them are headed to Washoe County.

This is the entirety of J & J’s current inventory, and the company has told government officials that supply will be limited in the weeks to come. However, the company expects to deliver 16 million additional doses by the end of March.

J & J’s vaccine is the third to receive authorization in the U.S. It’s also the first single-dose vaccine to be approved by U.S. authorities, and it is the only one that does not require ultra-cold storage.

Its lower efficacy has been capturing headlines and sparking hesitancy to accept it among people who are seeking vaccination. Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection. By contrast, J & J’s vaccine is 66% effective in preventing moderate to severe illness and 85% effective against severe disease.

It’s 100% effective at preventing death, in trials anyway, as no one who has received it has died from COVID-19. Vaccine experts say that’s the measure people should prioritize.

Washoe County Health District (WCHD)—like agencies around the country—is advising residents to accept whichever vaccine they’re offered because vaccine supplies do not allow for people to choose between the three.

The approval of J & J’s vaccine comes as CDC director Rochelle Walensky has announced a very concerning shift in the pandemic’s trajectory. After weeks of a downward trend in new cases, new infection rates are leveling off at a very high number of 67,000 cases per day nationally based on a seven-day average.

The WCHD is planning to provide 3,200 doses of vaccine to residents between today and Wednesday. It will also be receiving this week’s allotment of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine doses Tuesday morning—a total of 7,950. An order for 3,600 doses of the J & J vaccine was ordered by the health district on Friday and is also expected to arrive sometime this week.

James English from the Washoe County Health District speaks with media following the arrival of the county's first batch of COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020.
James English from the Washoe County Health District speaks with media following the arrival of the county’s first batch of COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020. Image: Trevor Bexon / This Is Reno

According to the WCHD’s James English, the agency has a team looking into how best and to whom to deliver these doses. He stressed that he thinks it would be “very shortsighted” of people to refuse the J & J vaccine if that is the one they’re offered.

The more than 11,000 doses expected to arrive this week are in addition to doses delivered directly from the federal government to pharmacies and agencies like the Veterans Affairs hospital. The expected doses of J & J vaccine may not be used until sometime next week.

While its community partners like fire departments and hospitals—as well as pharmacies engaged in the federal vaccine program—are focused on vaccinating those 65 and older, the WCHD is currently working to get people in the supply chain and logistics field taken care of—including those who work in manufacturing, shipping and warehouse jobs. English said this is a very large group of people, and it will take weeks for the health district to offer all of them the opportunity to get the shot.

It’s not only the size of the group that poses challenges, English said, but also the difficulty of working with large businesses that need to maintain minimum staffing levels and schedule their workers during times when they’re getting off shift. The health district continues to hold evening and weekend vaccine points of distribution (PODs) to accommodate this.

Rodeo may force POD to move

Additionally, the health district may have new challenges cropping up in the months ahead. A particularly large one would be if the Reno Rodeo is held in June, which would require the WCHD to relocate its current POD site from the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center—at least temporarily. The rodeo was cancelled last year but is set to return from June 17–26, pending the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions. Tickets for it went on sale Monday, Feb. 22 at 10 a.m.

The Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center was chosen as the health district POD location by WCHD and other local officials because of its central location and easy access from bus routes and the freeway. English said moving it is a “big concern” currently being planned for by a team dedicated entirely to the logistics of relocating, which he said would be a “monumental process.”

“Our location out here has in excess of $500,000 worth of infrastructure and design to have the least impact as possible. It’s all modular, but, at the same time, it’s very difficult to find a location that’s paved…and can move a large number of vehicles through,” English said. “We’re not even close to our capacity at this operation, and we put through over 2,000 people Saturday with very little wait—and also still in less than six hours. So, this is a big concern here for the health district.”  

To date, nearly 60,000 Washoe County residents have received their first dose of vaccine. More than 37,000 have received their second dose as well.

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