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Challenges Hospitals And Health Workers May Face In Distributing The COVID-19 Vaccine


The race for a COVID vaccine is about to enter a new phase. This week the story was the FDA process to grant emergency approval. Next, the challenge will be to distribute millions of doses around the country. Health care workers will be crucial to that task, and they are already stretched thin. Joining us from Milwaukee, Wis., is Dr. Jeff Bahr. He oversees medical operations at Aurora Health Care. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JEFF BAHR: Thanks, Ari - pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: So how long do you think it'll take to go from greenlight from the FDA to shots actually going into people's arms?

BAHR: Honestly, right now, Ari, we're very optimistic. We're talking about a matter of days, but it could be weeks. But really, we're maintaining positivity right now.

SHAPIRO: I know it's getting distributed to the states, and then it's up to the states to distribute it to cities, hospitals, et cetera. Have you been given a timeline by state leadership? Do you know what to expect?

BAHR: Not just yet. So we have our antenna up, and again, we are ready to go as soon as we get that crucial greenlight.

SHAPIRO: The top priority group of people to get vaccinated first is going to be bigger than the first batch of doses, so how are you prioritizing within that top-priority group of health care workers?

BAHR: Well, we know that we're going to have to have our frontline clinical caregivers for the long haul, so we've prioritized them. So those people at the pointy end of the spear in our critical care units, in our acute care settings, are first in line.

SHAPIRO: And does that mean people working with COVID patients who are themselves elderly or people who have underlying conditions? Or are you optimistic that in the first dose, you'll be able to get all of the frontline health care workers who are interacting with COVID-19 patients?

BAHR: We're fairly confident that anyone who wants the vaccine who is categorized as one of those frontline clinical care team members will be able to get the vaccine. If those people happen to overlap categories - because we do have physicians, nurses, technicians and therapists who themselves have risk factors and who are braving this pandemic - they will be eligible for that vaccine as well.

SHAPIRO: So what impact do you think it's going to have when that first round of shots goes through the health care workers in a hospital? Are they going to be able to exhale a little bit? Will they be able to wear a little less PPE? Is it just going to be a less stressful environment? Tell us what difference you think it'll make.

BAHR: Well, honestly, I think it'll make a difference in the outcomes, the end results - how many hospitalizations, how many new cases, how many deaths. But it won't make an impact on what we do because we know that the vaccine will prevent disease. It may not prevent spread of the disease. So we can breathe a little easier, but we can't let our guard down.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying a vaccinated person won't have to worry about getting sick themselves, but they still have to be aware not to pass the disease onto someone who hasn't been vaccinated.

BAHR: Absolutely correct, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So many hospitals around the country are already struggling with staff shortages, and administering the vaccine takes a lot of people. Do you have enough trained professionals to do this?

BAHR: We are engaging and recruiting every element of our clinical care teams that we can, and that includes everyone from our existing staff to maybe recently retired nurses, doctors. Our student learners and trainees who are more than capable of administering a vaccine - they will be engaged as well.

SHAPIRO: You know, we're talking to you about this hopeful wave of vaccinations, but we could just as easily be talking with you about this really bleak wave of hospitalizations and deaths. And with both happening at the same time, how are you feeling right now?

BAHR: Well, it's bittersweet because we know that we're smarter. We're wiser than we were back in March. We've come a long way in a very short period of time. And so it's easy to take a broader view and say, look how far we've come in such a short time. But that said, I don't think the memories of those that have come and unfortunately perished in the midst of this pandemic - those are indelible memories for clinical caregivers, nurses, doctors and so many others. So, like I said, it's bittersweet. It would have been better had we learned even more even sooner so we could have intervened at much more crucial moments.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Jeff Bahr in Milwaukee. He oversees medical operations at Aurora Health Care. Thank you for talking with us.

BAHR: Thanks so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.