Pictured: Eva Reeder, RN, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Raj Bhatia, director of the intensive care units at St. John’s Regional Medical Center and St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Photo by Barry Harrington. 

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

After the first vaccines were administered to healthcare workers on Wednesday afternoon, Ventura County reported 731 new cases of coronavirus and three additional deaths on Thursday evening. 249 people are currently being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals across the county, with 55 people in ICUs. 

On Nov. 30, before the county saw the impact of Thanksgiving holiday gatherings, the county was reporting that just 99 people needed hospitalisation due to COVID, and just 25 people were being treated in ICUs for reasons related to the illness. 

As of Thursday, Dec. 17, the total number of people who have died in the county with COVID-19 is 207. 

In county public meetings and press conferences throughout the past week, local officials and healthcare professionals pleaded with the public to adhere to the stay-at-home order, saying the light at the end of the tunnel offered by the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine will not have an immediate effect and that restrictions on gatherings, businesses and other activities are needed to help healthcare providers do their jobs and protect the general public. 

“Monumental day” 

Calling Wednesday a “monumental day,” Ventura County Supervisor and Board Chair Kelly Long stood in front of the Ventura County Human Services Agency on Gonzales Road in Oxnard and called on the public to support healthcare workers even as the first vaccines were being administered. “They need our help so they can take care of everyone.” 

“Today is going to be the start of what we hope will be the end of getting COVID-19 out of here,” said Karen Beatty, a registered nurse with the Ventura County Emergency Medical Services Agency. She has worked with the county for 20 years. 

First vaccinations in the county

The first four volunteers in the county to receive the inoculations were Julianna Svolos, a certified nursing assistant at Adventist Health in Simi Valley; Gavin Jones, a registered trauma nurse with the emergency department at Ventura County Medical Center and Santa Paula Hospital; Pilar Parker, a registered ICU nurse with the Community Memorial Healthcare System; and Dr. Raj Bhatia, director of the intensive care units at St. John’s Regional Medical Center and St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital.  

The nurses administering the shots were Eva Reeder, a public health nurse and manager of the county’s TB Clinic, Hannah Edmondson, a public health nurse with the county’s communicable diseases unit, Megan Steffy, director of Public Health Nursing and Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health and Beatty administered the fourth shot

Beatty explained that each person inoculated will receive less than one-half of a milliliter or .3 ml of fluid into the deltoid muscle in the upper arm. The Pfizer vaccine has been “drawn up and…reconstituted with normal saline,” pursuant to U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and manufacturer instructions. She explained that there are five doses in one vial. Once it is removed from cold storage and reconstituted, the vaccine is viable for six hours. 

Gavin Jones, a registered trauma nurse with his daughter after receiving one of the first COVID-19 vaccinations on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Photo by Barry Harrington.

According to Beatty, all those vaccinated in the state will be registered with a state program called PrepMod and a phone app from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called V-Safe will be added to their phones. The CDC will check in daily with each person for the first six days post inoculation regarding any adverse reactions such as headaches or fever. After the first six days, there will be weekly check ins. A third app and a card will remind them when their second dose is due in 21 days.  

Officials said the vaccine provides hope and a light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, but that the public health orders are still important to ensure numbers decrease, as the vaccine requires two doses to be fully effective and it’s only being distributed in limited quantities so far. 

Public Health Director Rigoberto Vargas reported 497 news cases on Wednesday and said despite the county’s efforts, “cases continue to increase…we have quite a way to go before we see improvement in hospitalizations and in regard to deaths.” 

He said the hospitalization numbers represent “another record high” and emphasized the “exhausted” workers in the hospitals who are “working long hours.” He said they had thought the county had recently turned a corner but “at this rate [we’ll] reach 300 soon” in hospitals. “Just last week [Ventura Count was] in the 100s.” He called the increase a “reminder of the seriousness of COVID.” 

“Until we see an improvement in [the number of] cases, we don’t stand to see an improvement in hospitalizations,” said Vargas. He reminded the public that because it takes one or two weeks for symptoms to appear in most cases, the hospitalization rate is a “lagging indicator…we must improve the number of cases seen in the community to reduce numbers in hospitals…There is no flattening of the curve.” 

Dr. Robert Levin, health officer with Ventura County Public Health speaking at press conference in Oxnard on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Photo by Barry Harrington.

Dr. Robert Levin, medical officer with Ventura County Public Health, explained the coronavirus “organism gets in your eyes, nose, throat…it grows up to big numbers, maybe your body can control it,” but some will get very sick, and some will die. 

He explained that those who get the vaccine will still have the virus get into their body, but the vaccine works by prepping the body’s immune system in advance to trigger a quicker response when exposed to the virus so the virus “doesn’t get to grow up big time,” and instead the “body antibodies come right in and tamp down that infection.”  He also emphasized that “we don’t know yet” if those who have been vaccinated can pass on the virus if they are exposed. 

The remaining vaccines, about 1,916 doses, are being administered across the local healthcare system. The general public may have access to one or more vaccines in April or May. 

Levin acknowledged the hope that the vaccine provides but said “we are still in the tunnel, in an intense surge.” The hope is that the vaccine will help to “turn the tide of this virus here in Ventura County.” 

Authorized for emergency use

On Dec. 11, 2020, the FDA issued an interim emergency use authorization (EUA) of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 years and older. The FDA clarifies in a fact sheet for the vaccine that this EUA process allows the emergency use of a vaccine “which is not an FDA-approved vaccine.” 

During review, the FDA Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended emergency use authorization, with 17 of the 21 members saying the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any potential risks. Three members voted against the recommendation with one abstention. The doctor who abstained is Dr. H. Cody Meissner at Tufts University, a specialist in pediatric infectious disease. He was interviewed on National Public Radio and stated he felt there was not enough information in the studies to be able to know the full risk-benefit analysis for 16 and 17 year olds. 

The Most recent FDA fact sheet for Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is online at: www.cvdvaccine-us.com/images/pdf/fact-sheet-for-recipients-and-caregivers.pdf

CDC information on the vaccine: www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/info-by-product/pfizer/index.html

The FDA Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is holding an emergency meeting on Dec. 19 and 20, 11:30 a.m – 4:30 p.m EST, to discuss and vote on the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and other clinical and distribution processes for the COVID-19 vaccines. The meeting is online and open to the public. More information is online at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/acip/index.html