Vaccine news promising, but stay vigilant

A great hope was announced to the world this week when we learned that a potential vaccine for COVID-19 is on the immediate horizon.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said its vaccine is 95% effective against the virus that has infected some 11 million U.S. residents and killed more than 250,000 since February. The company is asking federal regulators to allow emergency use of the vaccine, meaning shots could be available on a limited scale as early as next month. Globally, Pfizer has estimated it could have 50 million doses available by year’s end.

Meanwhile, drugmaker Moderna says its vaccine is equally as effective and that it could be ready for authorization within weeks, as well.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., expressed confidence in the Pfizer product, telling reporters last week that he took part in the company’s vaccine trial and experienced no serious side-effects.

“This is about saving lives,” Daines said about the push for a vaccine and his participation the trial. “This is about supporting our health-care frontline heroes. It’s about protecting Montana jobs and workers and rebuilding our economy. It’s also about American innovation. It’s about restoring hope. It’s about restoring normalcy into our way of life.”

That sense of normalcy is something we all long for these days, and the promising news from Pfizer is the shimmer of light we’ve been seeking since the pandemic began nine months ago.

The “calvary is on the way,” Dr. Anthony Fauci cheered during a White House press conference Friday. Yet, he implored that now is not the time to let down our guard.

“If you’re fighting a battle, and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting. You keep going until the calvary gets here,” he said.

His message was echoed by Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton, who on Thursday reminded Montana residents to stay vigilant, even with a vaccine on the horizon.

“It is critically important that we do not let our guard down and stop the prevention measures and hope that we’ll get lots of vaccine soon,” Felton said. “History tells us that in such cases, we are likely to get far less vaccine and far later than we would hope.”

There are other obstacles to consider, as well.

Montana’s vaccination plan would roll out in three phases over several months. Only health-care workers, long-term care patients and other high-risk populations over the age of 65 will get the first doses. Other shots would come as production and distribution systems ramp up, which could take months.

The Pfizer vaccine also needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius, which requires specific, costly equipment that many rural hospitals don’t have in place. According to a report from the CDC, reaching rural areas will be a major challenge for equitable administration of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Flathead City-County Health Department’s Deputy Health Officer Kerry Nuckles also notes that it will take appropriate staffing to administer the shots — an issue that has plagued the health department since the pandemic first emerged in Montana.

We’re confident our community and health-care leaders can overcome all of these challenges, given the appropriate resources to make it happen.

Until then, it’s up to us to keep our loved ones and neighbors safe as virus cases threaten to overwhelm our local health-care systems. Remember that every hospital bed occupied by a COVID patient — currently more than 500 statewide — is one less bed available for a car crash victim, a heart surgery patient or someone fighting cancer.

The sheer exhaustion felt by our front line health-care workers is no hoax — let’s give our doctors and nurses the support they deserve by continuing to adhere to the recommended measures to help slow the spread of COVID.

Please consider scaling back your holiday plans and avoid non-essential travel. Stay vigilant with hand washing, and wear a mask when social distancing isn’t possible.

Yes, the calvary is on the way, but we’ve got to keep fighting until the reinforcements arrive.