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How will the COVID vaccine be handled at each facility? Will it be mandatory? Will it be given annually? Will it be a condition of employment? These are all questions that will need to be addressed.
Creating vaccines for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and getting them approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proved to be an arduous task fraught with scientific and logistical hurdles. Now comes the hard part: Getting those vaccines widely distributed to the right people. Where do infection preventionists (IPs) fit into this part of the pandemic response?
There are two overarching levels of vaccine implementation: regional public health mass vaccination planning and local, targeted efforts for specific populations. In both areas, IPs need to be involved in planning and implementation. Infection preventionists have both education and training in public health and outbreak response as part of their core concepts to become an IP. Also, many IPs work closely with local, regional and state public health partners on a regular basis, so the relationships are already built.
The first wave of vaccination will be focused on large-scale public health driven efforts. These are being driven at the state level for distribution to focus, most likely, on healthcare workers and residents of long- term care facilities. These efforts clearly must be multi-disciplinary in order to have effective planning and viewpoints that can bring creativity to solve the problem of how to effectively distribute millions of doses of a vaccine that requires very specific handling and storage parameters.
For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will need to be kept at ultra-cold temperatures, and will be allocated in large dosage counts, requiring vaccination of large groups in a short time period. The teams need to include providers, pharmacists, public health, healthcare facility leadership, emergency management and other local leaders. Likely members from all of these groups have not worked closely together from all sectors on such a large scale task. It will be crucial to function in an incident command methodology to keep the group moving forward with the same objectives and bring barriers to forefront quickly for rapid problem solving.
IPs have been working scenarios of mass vaccination for years, in preparation for pandemic flu primarily, but also with potential biological threats (anthrax, smallpox) and other outbreaks such as measles and pertussis. These skills and insights make IPs and their public health colleagues subject matter experts on the nuances of mass vaccination. For example, some hospital systems would take the opportunity to turn annual employee flu vaccination into a drill and treat as if it were a mass vaccination event in collaboration with emergency management colleagues. These events would teach valuable lessons in the best way to reach all staff, including having multiple vaccination administration locations and the best way to handle the data collection necessary to track large scale vaccination efforts.
Infection prevention needs to be a partner in the large-scale planning that is occurring currentlyin most states and local healthcare facilities. These efforts are largely being led by public health on state or regional levels, but the local hospitals will also need to plan when vaccine is distributed in future tiers for local administration. Not only to help with logistics of vaccine storage, administration, documentation and data collection and reporting, but also to focus on safety of the workers and vaccine recipients of the vaccine clinics. Personal protective equipment (PPE) use of staff, workflow to ensure social distancing and decrease crowding, cleaning and disinfection practices of the clinic site are all logistic concerns that should be addressed in the planning stage to avoid potential exposures or contamination concerns.
Another area for concern is the cold storage and transport of the vaccine. Specialized freezers and transport companies that can safely move vaccine from distribution sites to vaccine clinics are necessary to maintain that cold chain delivery system. Specialized transport companies that have experience in this type of system will be in high demand and IPs can help evaluate the processes of these third-party vendors to ensure they will be able to accommodate the level of transport needed and maintain the storage parameters of the vaccines.
Data collection for the large-scale clinics will likely be mediated through health departments, but the details of tracking and knowing which employees did receive vaccine and communicating that to the local healthcare facilities will need to be addressed. Likely each state will have to determine the best way to communicate vaccine administration, but it will also be the responsibility of each employee to report their vaccination status back to the healthcare facility.
Local Vaccine Planning
Hospital vaccine programs are historically a collaborative effort between infection prevention and employee health programs. As COVID-19 vaccine efforts continue, there will need to be consideration of how that will be managed within the context of the current hospital-based vaccination programs. How will COVID vaccine be handled at each facility? Will it be mandatory? Will it be given annually? Will it be a condition of employment? These are all questions that will need to be addressed. There are some unknowns at this point, including the need for annual boosters, required storage needs, and data reporting.
Infection prevention is also a key partner with employee health programs to promote vaccine uptake and educate on the mechanism of how the vaccine works and potential side effects. As these new vaccines are approved for distribution, it will be key for IPs to learn about the studies completed to date to have an understanding of these key points to help with staff education. Reviewing the articles published during the trials, as well as the recommendations from the federal programs will help IPs become knowledgeable about the vaccines. Also, key information that IPs will likely need to address will be side effects, efficacy and recommendations of priority risk groups (such as healthcare works, elderly, essential workers, etc.). IPs can help address these questions through rounding and education opportunities, published newsletters and new employee orientation.
Planning for the logistics of how vaccine will be distributed locally will take much effort. Some items to consider are the timing of when staff will receive their dose and when they work their next shift. As virtually all healthcare facilities are screening for COVID symptoms, potentially the reactions to vaccine may meet some of those criteria, such as low-grade fever or malaise. It will be important to plan for this as an organization, to consider that with screening or plan for staff to have 24-48 hours after their dose before their next shift.
Planning for this process should already be starting. As many healthcare facilities are operating under the incident command system, the vaccine administration can be brought under that structure and would already have all the key departments at the table to help coordinate.
Data reporting for COVID vaccination will be potentially extensive. Many employee health programs may not have the reporting capabilities to handle the level of data collection and tracking that will be necessary for this initial wave of vaccination. Often employee health programs do not have electronic systems that integrate with other reporting programs or link to state health departments, therefore much of the work will be manual. Infection prevention needs to advocate for improved data systems for employee health tracking, which will not only be beneficial in the COVID vaccine process but, going forward, for all other employee health activities.
One thing that IPs must remember: Vaccination is not the end of this pandemic. Most likely the vaccination rate needed to provide sufficient population immunity to control spread is around 80%. It will take years to achieve that level of vaccination, if at all. So, the vigilance of basic infection control measures will need to be maintained in some fashion until such a point. This is part of the IP toolkit.
Having worked with vaccine preventable diseases for decades, IPs understand that vaccination is not the only way to prevent disease transmission.
Behavior modification, engineering controls, such as modifying traffic patterns and increasing ventilation air exchanges, and other active processes are key to a multi-focal prevention plan. Universal masking will continue in healthcare facilities and hopefully on a community level for some time, until population immunity is of a sufficient level or community spread is low to minimal.
REBECCA LEACH, RN, BSN, MPH, CIC, has been an infection preventionist since 2010, with a background in nursing and epidemiology. Leach, a member of Infection Control Today®’s Editorial Advisory Board, currently works at a healthcare system in Phoenix that includes 5 hospitals and more than 100 outpatient treatment centers.