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USF Health experts project students could be vaccinated by summer 2021

USF received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines for faculty and staff last week. USF Health experts predict that all students could have the vaccine available by Summer B in late June. UNSPLASH/HAKAN NURAL

As more COVID-19 vaccines are developed and distributed across the country, USF students may be able to get the vaccine as early as April or May, according to USF Health experts. 

Most students will be able to get the vaccine during Phase III of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vaccine distribution plan, according to Dean of the Morsani College of Medicine Charles Lockwood. Although millions of Floridians need to be vaccinated before Phase III can occur, USF is facilitating rapid vaccine rollout which is projected to allow students to be vaccinated before the end of summer.

“The governor is very keen to get the vaccine to the students to keep the universities open, which is a good thing,” Lockwood said. “And so, between USF Health and Student Health Services, we should have enough manpower to be able to provide the vaccine.”

USF began distributing the COVID-19 vaccine Friday to faculty, staff and students over the age of 65. There will be 2,300 doses of the vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in partnership with BioNTech available in the first shipment from the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) and more shipments are expected in the future, according to Lockwood.  

“We have to follow Gov. [Ron] DeSantis’ requirements and he wants to focus on folks over the age of 65, which I’m very sympathetic to personally,” Lockwood said. “That makes a lot of sense from a public health standpoint.”

There are 1,300 faculty and staff members and 275 students eligible to receive the vaccine. The remainder of the 2,300 FDOH vaccine units will be given to USF Health patients over 65 who are deemed high risk, according to Lockwood.

The university will also be allowing retired faculty members to make appointments to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The order of vaccinations outlined by DeSantis will mean that once all faculty, staff and students over the age of 65 are vaccinated, the next shipment of vaccines will be delegated to other “vulnerable populations,” which include those at a higher risk of severe illness. 

After those two phases of distribution are complete, the vaccine will be available to the general population, and Lockwood estimates that Student Health Services (SHS) will be able to distribute it to all students as soon as April or May. 

Once vaccinations become more widely available, Assistant Dean of the Morsani College of Medicine Michael Teng anticipates the vaccine could be mandated as a requirement for attendance. 

“I don’t think USF would do it unilaterally, it would come from the Board of Governors,” he said. “But it certainly could be done as a requirement for [enrollment] in the fall if we go back to a more full in-person class schedule.”

Vaccines will most likely be mandated by employers, according to Lockwood, and USF will most likely follow suit when able. 

“When they get FDA approval, most employers and certainly USF Health, TGH, Moffitt and probably All Children’s will mandate vaccination, but we’re limited legally,” said Lockwood. “At this point, we can’t mandate right away.” 

USF Health students will be included in the general population distribution, according to Lockwood. 

“[USF Health students] are in an incredibly safe environment, no hospital-acquired infections of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic,” Lockwood said. “We would love to be able to get our medical students and all the students vaccines, and when we get enough vaccines we will.” 

As USF Health officials are anticipating vaccinations for all students in April or May, USF administration is projecting an in-person course schedule by Summer B. All in-person activities are expected to resume by fall 2021, Provost Ralph Wilcox said in a letter to USF Health administration.

Lockwood and other USF Health members in contact with COVID-19 patients started receiving vaccinations from Tampa General Hospital (TGH) on Dec. 16. TGH administered 2,000 doses of the vaccine, according to Lockwood. 

Hillsborough County already vaccinated 3,680 people with both doses, and 21,474 have received the first dose. Despite national distribution of the vaccine not meeting the projected 20 million doses by Jan. 1 — with only 7.7 million doses given as of Jan. 11 — Teng does not expect a delay in the projected in-person Summer B class schedule. This is because there are vaccines in development that will not require specific technology to be produced and distributed in the way the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines need. 

“The AstraZeneca vaccine, for example, [producers] just have to give the instructions to other facilities and they can make it,” Teng said. “So the Serum Institute of India is the most notable one, they’ve already started making tens of millions of doses in India.” 

TGH is also in the testing phases of the Novavax vaccine, which along with many other vaccines in development, could allow for faster distribution.

Vanessa Arroyo, USF alumna and frontline nurse at TGH was the first person in the Tampa Bay area and one of the first in the state to receive the vaccine Dec. 14. Though nervous to be vaccinated on national television, she was eager to receive it. 

I felt I needed to get it to honor my patients I’ve lost throughout the pandemic, and to honor those lives we have lost in general,” she said. “I get sick to my stomach hearing people say COVID is a hoax and that it is ‘not that bad.’ I have personally seen numerous young, otherwise healthy, adults end up on life support and even dying.” 

Unlike some vaccinated individuals who experienced sore arms, mild fevers and chills, Arroyo felt no side effects after receiving the initial dose of the vaccine. After receiving the second dose, however, she experienced flu-like symptoms for two days, including a fever, chills and body aches. 

Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health and COVID-19 Task Force chair, said many people are afraid to take the vaccine because of the potential side effects. 

“It’s not a live virus vaccine, but it does mimic certain aspects of the virus, such that your body reacts and creates an immune response, and then that’s what creates the immunity to the virus,” she said. “The analogy I’ve been using is that what we’re trying to do is lock the front door so when it comes knocking it can’t get in.” 

Petersen also said that some people are nervous to get the vaccine out of concern that the development process was rushed — but that is not the case. According to Petersen, coronaviruses have been researched for years, so when COVID-19 was identified, potential vaccines for other coronaviruses were already in development.

“The change was a fusion of resources and international cooperation, which allowed vaccines to be produced by different companies. I think it tells you that that effort was all for good,” she said. “Even though there are different companies and they have slightly different forms of the vaccine, they’re all pretty much the same and they’re designed to stimulate an immune response in your body without exposing you to the virus.” 

Experts do not know if the vaccine will be permanently effective, according to Petersen. It could be either like the polio vaccine, which only needs to be administered once, or the influenza vaccine, which is annual. 

“We’re still learning about the kind of antibodies that are produced [by the vaccine],” she said. 

While the vaccine prevents a person from becoming sick from the virus, studies are unclear whether or not a vaccinated individual can still transmit the virus to others, according to Teng. Those who receive the vaccine must continue with mitigation efforts until at least 75% of the population has received both doses. 

“As long as this pandemic is around, we still need to do public health measures, physical distancing, wearing a mask and hand washing,” Teng said. 

Arroyo still wears her mask and practices physical distancing to protect others despite receiving the vaccine. She hopes that others realize the severity of the virus. 

“COVID-19 is not a hoax, it is real,” she said. “It does not discriminate against age, color or creed. 

“Many people feel like they’re invincible until sickness happens to them or a loved one and so I urge you to be proactive, educate yourselves with credible, evidence-based research and get vaccinated if able.”