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What Seniors Can Expect When COVID Vaccines Begin to Roll Out

 

BY JUDITH GRAHAM, Kaiser Health News • December 11, 2020

Vaccines that protect against COVID-19 are on the way. What should older adults expect? The first candidates, from Pfizer and Moderna, could arrive before Christmas.

Both vaccines are notably effective in preventing illness due to the coronavirus, according to information released by the companies, although much of the data from clinical trials is still to come. Both have been tested in adults age 65 and older, who mounted a strong immune response.

Seniors in nursing homes and assisted living centers will be among the first Americans vaccinated, following recommendations last week by a federal advisory panel. Older adults living at home will need to wait a while longer.

Many uncertainties remain. Among them: What side effects can older adults anticipate and how often will these occur? Will the vaccines offer meaningful protection to seniors who are frail or have multiple chronic illnesses?

Here’s a look at what’s known, what’s not and what lies ahead.

If the advisory panel gives a green light, the FDA will decide within days or weeks whether to authorize the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for emergency use. Distribution of the vaccine has already begun, and health care providers are expected to begin administering it immediately after the FDA acts.

This recognizes the extraordinary burden of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities. Although their residents represent fewer than 1% of the U.S. population, they account for 40% of COVID deaths — more than 100,000 deaths to date.

The commission’s decision comes despite a lack of evidence that Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are effective and safe for frail, vulnerable seniors in long-term care. Vaccines were not tested in this population. Federal officials insist side effects will be carefully monitored.

Next in line likely would be essential workers who cannot work from home, such as police, firefighters, teachers and people employed in food processing and transportation, according to commission deliberations Nov. 23 that have not come to a formal vote.

Then would be adults with high-risk medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, obesity, heart disease and autoimmune diseases and all adults age 65 and older.

Further prioritization. The priority groups constitute nearly half of the U.S. population — 21 million health care workers, 3 million long-term care residents, 66 million essential workers, more than 100 million adults with high-risk conditions and 53 million adults age 65 and older.

A study of more than 500,000 Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older provides new evidence that could influence these assessments. It found the conditions that most increase older adults’ chances of dying from COVID-19 are sickle cell disease, chronic kidney disease, leukemias and lymphomas, heart failure, diabetes, cerebral palsy, obesity, lung cancer and heart attacks, in that order.

Supplies available. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, administered three to four weeks apart. The companies have said about 40 million doses of their vaccines should be available this year, enough to fully vaccinate about 20 million people.

After that, 50 million doses might become available in January, followed by 60 million doses in both February and March, according to Dr. Larry Corey, a virologist who heads the COVID-19 Prevention Trials Network.

That translates into enough vaccine for another 85 million people and should be sufficient to vaccinate older adults in addition to medical personnel on the front lines and many other at-risk individuals, Corey suggested at a recent panel on COVID-19 sponsored by the National Academy of Medicine and American Public Health Association.

Dr. Sharon Inouye, a geriatrician at Hebrew Senior Life in Boston and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is among the physicians impatiently awaiting the publication of data from Pfizer’s and Moderna’s phase 3 clinical trials.

Among the things she wants to know: How many older adults with chronic health conditions participated? How many participants were 75 and older? Did side effects differ for older adults?

“What I worry about most is the side effects,” she said. “We may not be able to know about serious but rare side effects until millions of people take them.”

But that’s a gamble she’s willing to take. Not only will Inouye get a vaccine, she just told her 91-year-old mother, who lives in assisted living, to say “yes” when one is offered.

“My whole family lives in fear that something will happen to her every day,” Inouye said. “Even though there’s a lot we still don’t know about these vaccines, it’s compelling that we protect people from this overwhelming illness.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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