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Rhode Island House Task Force details COVID-19 vaccine challenges

It’s more complicated than simply making sure there’s enough vaccine for everyone.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean ofthe Brown University school of Public Health, spoke Wednesday before the Rhode Island House COVID-19 vaccine task force.Capitol TV

PROVIDENCE — With COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna expected in the coming weeks, public health officials and experts are finding that setting expectations about the vaccines may be as big of a challenge as actually administering them to the public.

Speaking before the Rhode Island House COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force on Wednesday, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and Dr. Michael Fine, former state Health director and now chief health strategist for the city of Central Falls, laid out the logistical challenges ahead.

People must be prepared to get both doses of the vaccine and understand the possible side effects. Concerns about vaccine safety must be addressed, and officials must figure out how to reach underserved and vulnerable populations. And not everyone can get the vaccine right away -- the state must prioritize vaccinating health care workers, first responders, and the staff and residents of nursing homes.

The US is entering what Jha called the “darkest days” of the pandemic. Echoing the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who spoke at an event with the US Chamber of Commerce earlier Wednesday, Jha warned that “we are in for a tough six to eight weeks ahead.”

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“Hospitals will be stretched,” he said. “Rhode Islanders will get sick and die.”

Jha said Rhode Island could receive the first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine as soon as Dec. 11 — it depends on results of a Dec. 10 review by the Food and Drug Administration and is not related to Rhode Island’s participation in Pfizer’s pilot program. Fine said that health officials are expecting 10,000 to 60,000 doses of vaccine to arrive in Rhode Island this month, with another 60,000 in January. There won’t be a vaccine for children for at least three to six months, he said.

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At least 70 percent to 80 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to bring the pandemic under control.

“I believe a lot of people will be willing [to be vaccinated] if they understand the process, if they understand the value,” Jha told the task force. “But if we only get to 40 or 50 percent, the virus will still be in the community.”

The vaccines do not contain the “live” virus, but they do have some side effects, including fever, headaches, and exhaustion — enough that health officials propose people take two days off of work to recover after being vaccinated, Fine said. The state will have to phase in the vaccines for healthcare workers, EMTs, and other first-responders, he said.

“We have to be ready to remind the public that this is part of the normal process. It’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” Fine said. “While we have two vaccines to be released shortly, there are 11 other vaccines in trials. We expect there will be more available vaccines in next six months to a year.”

House Minority Whip Michael Chippendale, a Republican representing Foster, Coventry, and Glocester, said his constituents were questioning the speed of how the vaccines were developed and the data showing its efficacy.

Jha explained that past work on the SARS virus in 2003 had helped researchers understand the novel coronavirus, a close cousin. In developing the vaccine, a process that would normally take years has instead taken 10 months due to a “combination of luck, really hard work, and collaboration.” Based on what he knew at the moment, he said, the vaccines are safe.

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“Everything important got done. It was unprecedented,” Jha said. “The federal government put in billions, companies poured in billions, and scientists stopped what they were doing to work on this.”



Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.