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FAMU Epidemiologist: COVID Vaccine Prioritization Is A 'Difficult Thing'

Dr Perry Brown FAMU.jpg
Florida A&M University
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Dr. Perry Brown is a professor with the Florida A&M Institute of Public Health.

Dr. Perry Brown says the decision to prioritize front-line workers and long-term care patients is based on the historical record of the virus: who it’s most likely to infect and kill.

The coronavirus pandemic has infected 14 million people and killed more than 276,000 since the country began tracking figures this year.

Now, after months of economic stagnation and lockdowns, social distancing and crowded hospitals, comes Gov. Ron DeSantis' announcement this past week that vaccines will be approved in the coming days.

In Florida, DeSantis said, the vaccine will first go to people in long-term care facilities, then health care workers "in high risk, high contact environments."

The decision to prioritize those people, says Florida A&M University epidemiologist Dr. Perry Brown, is based on the historical record of the virus: who it’s most likely to infect and kill.

“First responders, nurses, doctors, nursing home staff," said Brown. "And then, who is at risk of serious infection and death? And those would be the nursing home and long-term care residents, who have preexisting conditions."

Prioritizing those groups is simple, Brown said. After that, things get messy.

After nursing home residents and health care workers, DeSantis said the state will then turn attention to people over 65 “and those with significant comorbidities.”

Brown said many of those who fall into those categories are Black, Latino and Native American people. Minority communities have been hit hard by the virus.

"And yet, the prioritization there is difficult - a difficult thing, because we do understand those communities are going to be saying ‘Hey, what about us?” he said.

Also saying, “Hey, what about us?” are teachers.

“We’re asking a lot of them, not unlike other essential workers in our community. So, in my mind, they should be right there at the top of the list for a vaccination when one becomes available,” Leon County schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna recently said during a meeting of county leaders.

He echoed the position of teachers unions who are trying to be included in the early phases of the vaccine rollout.

Florida will use pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to distribute the injections, which is similar to how the federal government has planned the rollout.

That makes sense, says Brown: “That might facilitate the widest, quickest possible distribution of the vaccine when we get to that point.”

While DeSantis hasn’t talked about the role public health departments and other providers will have, Brown said that’s likely coming.

Yet he worries some people may not take the vaccine due to concerns about how it was made or be scared away from it due to a bad experience. Side effects like soreness at the injection site and low-grade fevers have been reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is even trying to reassure people that the vaccines won’t alter their DNA.

Brown said he personally plans to get a shot when it becomes available. He too, has a preexisting condition.

“I had a conversation with a friend who asked me, ‘How do you weigh the risk of the vaccine against the risk of COVID?’ And I said ‘Well, I have a preexisting condition, so I see the risk of some reaction to the vaccine as being much lower than the risk of me developing a serious infection should I be infected with COVID-19.”

Even with a vaccine, there are still a lot of unknowns. Chief among them, how long will it last? A year, two, forever? That’s a matter of time and tracking. An society is impatient. Still, he believes COVID-19 is here to stay, and that it "may become an intractable part of our existence."

It will be hard, he thinks, to go back to the way people lived prior to the pandemic.
Copyright 2020 WFSU.