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Experts say that the COVID-19 vaccine protects residents of long-term care facilities as well as the people who take care of them. Morsa Images / Getty Images
  • The CDC recommends that residents of long-term care facilities be among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • They say that the vaccine protects not only the health of the residents but also the facility employees who care for them.
  • They note that long-term care facilities can be superspreaders of the virus if preventive measures aren’t taken.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use last week.

Today, an FDA panel recommended that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine also been given an emergency green light.

According to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities should be the first to be vaccinated.

However, the CDC warns that there will be limited doses of this potentially life-saving treatment available — at least initially.

The supply issue has raised the question of whether reserving a significant number of available doses for older adults in poor health is the best way to distribute this critical resource.

“The CDC has laid down a set of criteria for those who should get the vaccine and in what order,” Jeremy Levin, DPhil, MB, BChir, the chairman and chief executive officer of Ovid Therapeutics, told Healthline.

“This is a first and historic step in the United States. While in other nations around the world, triage of scarce medical resources is often the norm and guided by clear rules in national medical services.”

Levin explained that the United States has had “tremendous” variability based on income and social circumstances, so the determination regarding frontline healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities is “correct, moral, and sensible.”

According to Levin, it’s essential to first protect those who protect us (frontline workers) and then protect those who are defenseless and vulnerable.

“Without those guideposts, we hit at the heart of the ethos of medicine,” Levin said. “Furthermore, by not protecting those in long-term care facilities, we endanger those that work there, create hotspots, and ensure prolongation and spread of the pandemic.”

“They should be very early as a high priority within that queue category [for the vaccine],” said Dr. Matthew Heinz, a hospitalist at Tucson Medical Center in Arizona and former Director of Provider Outreach at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.

Heinz said that as a healthcare worker, he sees his colleagues risking their lives every day to take care of those ill with COVID-19.

“I’m looking at the people who are in the faces of those who are literally breathing out droplets just filled with COVID-19 — that’s the respiratory therapists and the bedside nurses, and emergency room physicians who are intubating patients and, of course, anesthesiologists, critical care pulmonary doctors doing the same type of procedures,” Heinz told Healthline.

One concern that has been raised regarding prioritizing older adults in long-term care facilities is whether the new vaccine may have adverse effects on their health.

But experts say there’s another way to look at the situation.

“These folks are at very high risk because of their living situation and especially those who take care of them,” said Heinz. “The folks that are helping these people out, they absolutely need to have these [shots] and so do the residents — as high a priority as possible.”

Regarding safety, Levin said, “The profiles and data suggest that the side effects are similar to other vaccines such as Shingrix [a shingles vaccine].”

He added that the data so far suggests that “the risk-reward is overwhelmingly in favor of the vaccine.”

He also confirmed that the vaccine’s 95 percent effectiveness with the currently known side effects “speaks to a safe and effective vaccine.”

Heinz, who assisted in the domestic response to the Ebola crisis, understands the misgivings some people may have, but he’s confident FDA approval is well warranted.

“We’ve never had a vaccine developed this fast,” he said. “I understand why some other people might look at that and say, what happened? Did they cut corners? Did they cheat the process somehow? The FDA made sure that did not happen.”

Heinz thinks it’s important that people with relatives in care homes make a personal appeal for them to be vaccinated.

This might prove to be difficult given reports of side effects among the first people to receive the Pfizer vaccine. Two healthcare workers in Alaska developed noticeable allergic reactions.

Heinz said you could try expressing a desire for normality with your older relative: “Look, Mom, I want to spend a more normal holiday season next year, and I’m worried that if we don’t all get this now, it’s possible you could get this and not be with us to do that.”

Or simply be honest and say: “This is a horrible virus that kills a relatively large percent of people compared to flu and others, and we don’t have a cure, and we don’t have yet, generally available, widely distributed, vaccines — even though they’re on the way.”

Finally, Heinz recommended offering to be immunized together with your older relative, if you both qualify.

“Especially when these folks have loved ones in their lives whom they trust and listen to, maybe a daughter taking her mother to get vaccinated, and they can do it together,” he said.