Coronavirus vaccines a ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ but restrictions will likely last months longer

The first doses of a coronavirus vaccine could be available in the next few weeks — making medical experts hopeful about a “light at the end of the tunnel” even as they caution it will likely be several months before enough people are vaccinated to start easing restrictions.

“It’s an exciting time with two highly efficacious vaccines, and possibly three,” Boston University infectious diseases specialist Dr. Davidson Hamer said after vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna showed roughly 95% efficacy and one from AstraZeneca showed promise despite issues with its clinical trial.

“There’s some hope ahead,” Hamer said, “and light at the end of the tunnel.”

With the first vaccines potentially available by mid-December — the FDA is set to review Pfizer’s emergency use authorization request on Dec. 10, and the first doses could ship within 24 hours of approval — experts and officials from the federal government on down are working to finalize distribution plans.

Massachusetts will use its existing flu vaccine network to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, Gov. Charlie Baker said last week, though it “hasn’t been fully decided yet” who will get the shots first.

The state’s plan, an interim proposal from October, says Massachusetts can initially expect between 20,000 and 60,000 doses of the vaccine that would go to health care and other essential workers, as well as people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. When a “large number” of doses are available, distribution would be expanded through community-based health care centers and pharmacies. Once “sufficient supply” is reached, the state will focus on “equitable access” for all.

Massachusetts will finalize its distribution plan after the Center for Disease Control’s little-known Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meets Tuesday to vote on a federal priority list for a vaccine, said Dr. Paul Biddinger of Massachusetts General Hospital, who chairs Baker’s coronavirus vaccine advisory committee.

“We really could be three to four weeks away from the first vaccination,” Biddinger said.

The good news on the vaccine front comes with some caveats. The current crop of vaccines requires two injections spaced three to four weeks apart, and immunity doesn’t fully kick in for a couple weeks after the second shot.

“From injection of the first dose to immunity can be four to six weeks, or longer,” Biddinger said.

And getting vaccinated doesn’t mean a person can stop wearing masks or social distancing.

“The data behind vaccines proves that they are effective at limiting your risk of death, limiting your risk of needing hospitalization,” Biddinger said. “But it’s not at all clear that they can completely prevent infection.”

While some doses could be available by the end of 2020, it could be months before production has ramped up enough to make COVID-19 vaccines widely accessible. Experts estimate upward of 60% or 70% of the population will need to be inoculated before viral spread will ebb enough for restrictions to begin to lift.

“That is a big task given that we have limited doses of the vaccine and won’t likely have large-scale rollout until the summer,” Boston University epidemiology professor Matthew Fox said. “But if the vaccines that are in existence are targeted well — to health care workers and those at highest risk of severe illness — we could see an impact on hospitals earlier, and that would likely mean that governors would start to ease restrictions.”

Dr. Helen Boucher, infectious diseases chief at Tufts Medical Center, said there’s “hope we’ll be living kind of a less constrained life by next summer.”

But until then, she said, “The patriotic thing for all of us to do is to double down on the measures we know work — that’s covering our face, washing our hands, maintaining physical distance, avoiding crowds and not letting our guards down.”

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