University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics expecting to vaccinate employees next week, pending FDA approval

UIHC is expecting about 1,000 doses next week. The hospital will split its employees into four different priority groups for vaccination.


Roman Slabach

UI Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran sits at the University Main Hospital on Dec. 3, 2018.

Sarah Watson, Executive Editor

Frontline workers at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics may receive the first round of coronavirus vaccinations next week, once approved by the Food and Drug Administration. UIHC leaders said Wednesday they expect the vaccine — developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech and boasting a 95 percent efficacy rate — to be given a green light tomorrow.

“We really do believe it’s safe, and we really want all of our staff to get the vaccine,” UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran told reporters Wednesday.  “…We think that it will create stability within UI health care so we can know that we will have the clinical teams that are necessary to take care of Iowans through the rest of this pandemic.”

The FDA will hold a livestream hearing tomorrow, which will determine whether the vaccine will receive an emergency stamp of approval to begin distribution to high priority groups. From there, Gunasekaran said UIHC will begin giving vaccines to its front-line workers as soon as next week. The UK and Canada approved the Pfizer vaccines earlier this week, and a Moderna version is close behind.

UIHC is still waiting on the exact number of vaccine doses it will receive, and will be updated weekly on the number of shipments, but Gunasekaran is expecting about 1,000 doses.

“We anticipate that right now we’re being told we will only be told one week at a time how many doses that we’re getting so we think for next week, the number will probably be close to 1,000 doses,” Gunasekaran said. “And we have 18,000 workers.”

The logistics of distribution will be challenging, UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said. The Pfizer vaccine must be kept in ultracold temperatures and must be used within hours of unthawing. UIHC employees will not be required to receive a vaccine, though it’s strongly encouraged Gunasekaran said. UIHC can store up to 50,000 doses, so Patricia Winokur told reporters storage will not be the limitation.

“The storage capacity is not going to be the limitation the limitation is going to be how much vaccine we get,” said Executive Dean of the Carver College of Medicine and lead on UIHC’s COVID-19 vaccine trials Patricia Winokur.

UIHC will distribute the vaccine to tiered groups of employees through its employee vaccine clinic. The first phase, Gunasekaran said, will prioritize “the team” most directly involved with COVID-19 patient care.

“When I say the team, I mean the team, starting with physicians, mid-level providers, nurses, therapists, all the way down to the housekeepers that work in those units, it’s a total integrated team that is going to be prioritized first,” Gunasekaran said.

The second phase will extend to UIHC’s main campus employees, and the third round will be distributed to health care providers at off-campus clinics. The fourth phase covers UIHC support staff, those who aren’t dealing directly with patients.

Employees will go through its employee health clinic, which routinely handles staff vaccinations. Instead of the flu vaccination, which is a decentralized process, the Pfizer vaccine will have to be organized and distributed to avoid wasting any doses.

“What we really want to do is vaccinate our entire organization as fast as we can,” Gunasekaran said.

The vaccine does cause sore arms and fatigue, Winokur said, but side effects overall are not surprising.

“We’re still going to pace them out a little bit so that everyone in their unit isn’t getting vaccinated on the same day,” Gunasekaran said.

No employees will be charged for the vaccine. Gunasekaran said they haven’t budgeted any specific amount for the vaccine storage, though the ultra cold freezers UIHC ordered months ago were the biggest expense.

“Right now we don’t see any major budget or expenses associated with this,” Gunasekaran said.

UIHC doesn’t yet have a plan for patient or community vaccination, but Gunasekaran said UIHC would like to be a site for wider vaccination once another wave of vaccine doses comes.

Once employees are vaccinated, Gunasekaran said, there are no plans to change employee safety guidelines, recommendations Winokur said remain the same for the public as well. Question marks linger on whether vaccinated people can still carry the virus from person to person without developing symptoms. Between the first and second dose of the vaccine, Winokur warned, there’s a 52 percent efficacy rate.

“So there is still going to be a need for the people who’ve been vaccinated to continue to maintain social distancing masking,” Winokur said. “We also don’t know yet whether the vaccine reduces the shedding of virus. We know that it reduces the numbers of cases of symptomatic COVID-19. We need to learn more about whether it can concrete truncate transmission from person to person.”