WUSM partners with BJC to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses to qualified undergraduate, graduate groups

| News Editor

As vaccinations against the novel coronavirus have begun distribution and administration across the country, Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) and BJC Healthcare have played a role in the incolutation process.

At this point in the pandemic, the University has a crucial role to play in vaccinating the region. The CDC recently ranked Missouri last in the percentage of residents who have received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. As of Jan. 24, only 3.9% of Missourians have been vaccinated with the first dose, compared to the national percentage at 5.6%.

The University determines who gets the first doses of the vaccine based on state and federal guidelines. All BJC and WUSM employees have now been offered the vaccine, as they fall into phase 1A, the first tier of Missouri’s suggested roll-out plan: patient-facing and general health care workers. Medical Director of the BJC Infection Prevention and Epidemiology Consortium Dr. Hilary Babcock explained that BJC and WUSM are now focusing on phases 1B1 and 1B2, with the next phase, 1B3, planned to begin soon.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

“1B1 is first responders, so EMS, police, fire and those people are being actively contacted and invited to get the vaccine through BJC and other health systems in the area,” Babcock said. “The next one is 1B2 and that is everyone over the age of 65 and people under 65 with specific medical conditions…1B3 is critical infrastructure workers and that [includes] K-12 education and grocery store workers.”

Few students on the Danforth Campus have received a vaccine since many undergraduates are not qualified yet. However, some student groups fall into the first few activated tiers, including Washington University’s Emergency Support Team (EST), since as first responders, they are included in the 1B1 tier. Active EST members were able to receive their first doses of vaccine earlier this week. EST President senior Claire Wild wrote in a statement to Student Life that these vaccinations will help mitigate risk further.

“All EST members are equipped with N95 masks, eye protection and gloves that, when worn appropriately, prevent infection,” she wrote. “However, as is with all health care workers, EST members are at a higher risk of coming in contact with COVID, and the vaccine helps tremendously to protect against even the smallest chance of contracting the virus.”

The distribution of vaccines has proven to be complex, as numerous states and regions have grappled with a myriad of logistical problems including a shortage of available staff to administer doses, the vaccine’s low temperature requirements and a lack of transparency from federal and state governments on the number and timing of shipments.

“Even with the supply that we thought we were going to get for a week, we find out five days later how much we are actually getting and then we get that amount two days after that,” Babcock said. “So we just don’t have enough to plan that we can schedule lots of appointments, bring lots of people and get them ready because we might end up with half of what we ordered and then we can’t vaccinate those people.”

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored in temperatures below -94 degrees Fahrenheit, while the Moderna vaccine requires -4 degrees Fahrenheit and the AstraZeneca vaccine only needs a temperature of around 36 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result of these requirements, thousands of doses have spoiled across the country. Once taken out of a controlled temperature, hospital systems must scramble to administer all doses to minimize the number wasted.

Director of the University’s Institute for Public Health Dr. William Powderly clarified the genetic makeup of the vaccine means that some doses will inevitably be spoiled.

“Because of their [mRNA vaccines] instability, you have to discard unused vaccines at the end of the day,” Powderly wrote in a statement to Student Life. “Most vaccine sites try to use all their doses and will vaccinate people ‘out of turn.’ So for example, we have a wait list of people who don’t have an appointment but who could come to the center at short notice, and will call them to come in if we know we will have unused vaccines.”

The result of this process is that some lucky individuals receive their vaccine dose earlier than anticipated. This is exactly what happened to Plant and Microbial Biosciences graduate student Eric Conners.

“It was dumb luck that I got vaccinated,” Conners said. “And had I not gotten lucky, the situation I would be in now would be confusion.”

Conners received a Slack message from another graduate student that a clinic on the WUSM campus had low turnout one day. He arrived at the clinic as soon as possible, and as a WUSM employee, he was able to get his first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, he added that the vaccine distribution process had caused a lot of confusion for himself and other health care employees.

“One [email] from Jan. 21 said the vaccine is now available to all WUSM and BJC employees so that’s the latest we have heard,” Conners said. “So I think at this point they’ve opened it up to, I imagine that includes graduate students…but there’s been a lot of confusion.”

Conners said that he understands the difficulties that WUSM, BJC and other health care systems face, but still wishes there was more frequent communication.

“I get it because…the federal government didn’t do anything and so it was up to the states to figure it out and most states, including Missouri basically said ‘Ok, cities and counties you figure it out,’” Conners said. “So everyone just keeps passing it along and so nobody ends up being responsible for anything. Having said that, it’s weird that early on there wasn’t messaging to say ‘If you’re a student or employee, you are going to get vaccinated through us, just be patient.’ Which is why I think a lot of people are waiting around and aren’t sure when or how to get vaccinated.”

Administrators appear to have responded to this call for transparency and communication, scheduling an “Ask the Doctors Town Hall” with top medical experts Dr. Cheri LeBlanc and Dr. Steven Lawrence, Jan. 27.

“Many of you are wondering whether the University will be administering the vaccine to Danforth Campus faculty, staff and students,” the announcement in the Danforth Campus Digest read. “At this time, people working in higher education are not a specific group that is eligible to receive the vaccine under the current guidance.”

The announcement encouraged students and employees to pre-register with BJC healthcare and their local municipalities.

“The major goal is to get everyone who wants to be vaccinated a vaccine,” Powderly wrote. “Right now (and for the next few months) demand greatly exceeds supply—so we don’t want to waste any vaccine.”

The numbers from BJC’s new pre-registration system clearly illustrate this reality that the number of doses coming from the state is wildly inadequate.

“We opened this pre-registration portal on Monday [Jan. 18] at eight o’clock in the morning,” Babcock said. “Over 180,000 people have registered on that site so far. The state currently gets about 70,000 to 75,000 doses per week for the entire state of Missouri. So as you can see, there’s a big disconnect…It’s not a great place to be.”

The latest update from Drs. Lawrence and LeBlanc assured students that the University will remain in “close contact” with the state, BJC and regional health departments about potential vaccinations for Danforth Campus employees and students and keep the campus community updated about new developments.

“I know a lot of people want to get vaccinated and like I said, I’m thrilled that so many people want to get vaccinated,” Babcock said. “We just have to ask for patience as we all wait to see how much vaccine we have and try to get that out to people.”

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