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Public health officials are optimistic about the chances of a COVID-19 vaccine likely to be distributed in limited supply by the end of this year — but medical experts are also cautioning people not to let their guard down, especially as the holiday season rapidly approaches.
Pfizer said it expects to release a COVID-19 vaccine that's 90% effective by the end of November, pending federal approval. Once that happens, state officials will be in charge of distribution. Biotech company Moderna Inc., meanwhile, said its vaccine looks to be 95% effective, and also hopes to ship by the end of 2020.
But don’t count on getting it right away. When the vaccine does eventually arrive in Harris County, health care workers, first responders, and those most at risk for COVID-19 will get the initial doses, said Harris County Public Health Director Dr. Umair Shah.
"You're not gonna have enough vaccine initially to be able to cover the entire population," Shah told Houston Public Media. "Those are the areas of prioritization, but we want to be encouraging about getting the vaccine out to our community members as quickly as possible."
With cases and hospitalizations again on the rise in Greater Houston going into the holiday season, Shah and other health officials say the news should motivate the community to take mask wearing and social distancing seriously, even while remaining hopeful for the future.
"This is what we all want to see," Shah said. "I would think it's gonna be December or likely in the first part of 2021, when you're really gonna start to see it in local communities like Harris County and in Houston."
No timetable has been given for when a vaccine will be available to Harris County's general population. But the anticipated quick release to first responders had some healthcare workers worried early on.
"I was concerned that we were rushing these vaccines through," said Serena Bumpus, director of practice with the Texas Nurses Association.
But, she added, "to see a 90% efficacy rate for the vaccine, particularly the Pfizer vaccine, that tells me they are taking this seriously and they're looking at this cautiously to ensure that potential side effects could be minimized."
Still, some nurses across the state remain hesitant to take the initial dose, Bumpus said. That's because they're treating COVID-19 patients right now, who are showing confusing initial symptoms.
"Every day we learn something new," she said. "There are some people who are experiencing this virus who've never even had a fever before. It just feels like seasonal allergies, and so it's new developments like that, we're still trying to figure out."
Harris County hospitals collectively reported more than 200 COVID-19 patients in their ICU beds for five out of seven days last week, the highest number since Sept. 12.
The COVID-19 positivity rate at testing sites in Greater Houston is back on the rise, with the Texas Medical Center reporting a reproduction rate above 1.0 for the virus, indicating an increase in spread.
Now, the public health message leading into Thanksgiving is the same as it was just before the summer surge: Wear a mask, socially distance, and wash your hands. Alongside testing and contact tracing, those remain the best defenses against further spread in Harris County, until a vaccine arrives.
"We have something that's going to really be effective, and allow us to see the path forward," Shah said. "Now what we need to do is make sure that the safety data matches the effectiveness data. If you have both, now we've got something, and that's what's encouraging to all of us in public health."