COVID-19 vaccinations begin in Washington

Western States Scientific Study Review Workgroup OKs safety, efficacy of Pfizer vaccine

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COVID-19 vaccinations began in Washington state this week after the 17-member Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup determined that federal reviews of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine showed the drug was safe and effective.

“Given this rigorous process, I am extremely confident Washingtonians can begin to receive this vaccine in a safe fashion,” Gov. Jay Inslee said after announcing the workgroup’s findings on Sunday, Dec. 13. “Our state and other states stood up an independent process and added another layer of assurance that … the (Food and Drug Administration) followed its normal process in reviewing the vaccine. It’s reassuring to me, and I hope to others, to start down this road toward pandemic recovery.”

The first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Washington on Monday, with the first batch of Washingtonians — including the most at-risk health care workers, residents in long-term care facilities and members of indigenous tribes — scheduled to receive their vaccinations first.

Inslee said the vaccinations “could not come soon enough.”

“With Washington closing in on 200,000 total COVID cases and approaching 3,000 deaths, this help is much needed to prevent further infection, hospitalization and loss of life,” Inslee said.

The governor added that the vaccines do not mean Washington is “out of the woods” yet.

“This marks a turning point in this disease, but obviously we have a long way to go,” Inslee said. “We can’t let up on masking, physical distancing and restrictions on indoor activities. We need to continue to slow the rate of infection as we work to get Washingtonians vaccinated.”

Inslee said he would receive his COVID-19 vaccination when his turn came up — after the most at-risk Washingtonians had been vaccinated.

“As is the case across the U.S., it will take months before vaccinations are available to everybody who may want it,” Inslee said.

Dr. Kathy Loft, a Washington state health officer and member of the Western States workgroup, said Sunday that having safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines was “just an incredibly exciting milestone in this pandemic” but cautioned that Washingtonians still have a long way to go before the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our hospitals are stressed taking care of COVID and non-COVID patients, and health care workers are exhausted,” Loft said. “I’m thrilled to have a new tool in our toolbox. It will take several months, but we now have a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Loft said she “fully agreed with the FDA’s decision to authorize” the Pfizer vaccine and that workgroup members, who included vaccine experts from Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada, agreed that the FDA’s process, as well as the Center for Disease Control’s studies, were “scientifically rigorous and transparent.”

“The benefits of this vaccine far outweigh any risks,” Loft said. “I plan to get vaccinated as soon as I’m able.”

Another workgroup member, Dr. John Dunn, who has a background in vaccine safety studies, said he also looked forward to being vaccinated as soon as he was eligible, and called the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine’s 95-percent efficacy rate for preventing infection by the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 300,000 Americans in 10 months, “terrific by any measure.”

“The side effects we saw in the studies … are comparable to what we see in many other vaccines,” Dunn said.

Dr. Ed Marcuse, a pediatrician and University of Washington faculty member who has participated in other vaccine reviews for more than a decade, also sat on the Western States workgroup. Marcuse said Sunday that he believes the FDA’s process for reviewing the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine “was absolutely rigorous,” and said “systems are now in place to confirm the safety of the vaccine as we move forward.”

“We now know there will be an end to this turmoil, this trauma, this challenge,” Inslee said, adding that COVID-19 safety measures such as wearing face coverings, physically distancing and holding off on indoor gatherings without face coverings, are still critical to getting through the winter months and final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know this vaccine will work to prevent death from COVID-19, but it’s not the end today,” Inslee said. “We have more work to do to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”

Washington officials expect to receive 222,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of December. The FDA on Tuesday said a second COVID-19 vaccine, this one produced by Moderna, was “highly effective,” with no serious safety concerns, clearing the way for that vaccine’s use in the U.S. The Western States workgroup also will review the FDA’s Moderna vaccine authorization process. If the workgroup OKs the process, Washington leaders expect to receive 128,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine before the end of December.

“The enormity of this success cannot be overstated,” Inslee said of the creation of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines less than a year after the start of the pandemic. “It’s a tremendous achievement. And I am hopeful that (Washingtonians) will follow the science, receive the vaccine … and be safe this holiday season.”