'We will get there' - Trumbull hosts town hall meeting on COVID vaccine

TRUMBULL — The COVID-19 vaccine program is moving well, and local officials are expressing cautious optimism that the program’s schedule could be bumped up by several weeks if Pfizer and Moderna can maintain their current production pace.

Gregory Buller, a Bridgeport Hospital doctor specializing in internal medicine, was one of the panelists at a Trumbull town hall meeting on the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday.

“The vaccinating is going a lot quicker than anticipated,” Buller said. “Particularly with the production of the Moderna vaccine, it may be truncated by a few weeks.”

In a presentation and follow-up question period, he updated town officials and residents on the vaccine’s efficacy, timetable and potential side effects.

Although the state currently is vaccinating people in Tier 1a (emergency responders, doctors, nurses and nursing home staff and residents, among others), Tier 1b and Tier 1c, which are composed of people with a lower risk, are not scheduled to begin receiving vaccinations until late January, and late spring, respectively.

But early results show that the process could move faster, he said.

In his presentation Buller explained how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work.

“It uses mRNA, which is sort of a companion to DNA, to teach our own cells to make vital proteins and introduce an immune response,” he said.

The vaccines are delivered in two doses between 21 and 28 days apart. Nine days after the initial dose, the immune response kicks in, he said, and the body begins generating its own defense against the virus.

“After four months, you have virtually complete protection, even with just the one dose,” he said. “And then the second dose significantly prolongs the time you’re immune.”

During clinical tests of the Pfizer vaccine, Buller said, only one person who had been vaccinated went on to develop severe COVID-19. In that case, the vaccinated person’s oxygen saturation level dropped to 93 percent.

“That’s low, but it wouldn’t require us to give oxygen, and they might not even know it,” he said.

Side effects have included muscle soreness at the injection site, and some reports of moderate headaches, chills and fatigue. Four patients in the trial were diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, but given the number of people in the trial, that is about the same rate as in the general population, Buller said.

“I don’t really believe that’s a real side effect,” he said.

In total, though, given the known long-term effects of the novel coronavirus, Buller said there was “no doubt” that COVID-19 complications far outweighed the potential vaccine side effects.

Rockman Ferrigno, who chairs Bridgeport Hospital’s Emergency Department, agreed.

“This virus has been devastating for so many people,” he said.

Even those not in the high-risk groups can suffer greatly from the virus, he said.

“It’s a bit of a lottery ticket how you respond to COVID,” he said. “Sometimes you luck out and you’re fine. Sometimes you don’t.”

Even patients coming to the emergency department with similar symptoms could have drastically different outcomes, Buller said.

“One person walks in and gets checked out, and we send him home because he doesn’t need to be admitted,” he said. “Someone else comes in and ends up needing to be put on a ventilator.”

Trumbull Health Director Lucienne Bango reported that 31,200 doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been delivered to Connecticut in the first week it was available. With the approval of the Moderna vaccine, the state received nearly 90,000 combined doses the week after that, and the deliveries are accelerating.

Still, for Tier 1b essential workers like grocery store employees, teachers and child care providers and those over age 75, vaccination was probably still a month away.

For Tier 1c, which includes those with underlying medical conditions and seniors over age 65, the wait would likely stretch into the spring, Bango said.

But EMS Chief Leigh Goodman had good news for those who will be waiting months for their vaccinations. As more people receive the vaccine, the risk for the general population should decrease.

“I don’t really think the people who are waiting are going to be at a higher risk,” she said. “You’ll be more protected because more people around you have had the vaccine.”

But Goodman cautioned that even people who have been vaccinated should continue to follow the COVID protocols of social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.

“Once you get the vaccine, it’s not a free pass,” she said. “Keep your mask on over your mouth and nose. Much as we all wish things could immediately get back to normal, they won’t. But the vaccine could get us there a lot quicker.”

Still, with two vaccines being mass-produced and more on the way, Goodman said that the light at the end of the tunnel was at last coming into view.

“We will get there. It will just take time,” she said.