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The lead physicians at Hartford HealthCare dealing with COVID-19 will be the first in line to take the vaccine to combat the disease, officials said Tuesday.

“A lot of the suffering has been hidden from the public,” said HHC Pulmonologist Samuel Pope who is the medical director of the intensive care unit. “We have witnessed the suffering of this firsthand.”

Pope and HHC Pulmonologist Patrick Troy plan on being first in line to take the vaccine when it is expected to arrive in mid to late December. “We’re going to take it, we’re going to be the first people to take it,” Troy said. “People should want to take the vaccine and we’re going to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

Pope and Troy joined HHC Chief Clinical Officer Ajay Kumar during a press briefing Tuesday designed to educate the public about the benefits of the vaccines that are slated to be delivered to the state within the month.

The federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to review and approve the COVID-19 vaccine developed in record time by Pfizer on Dec. 10. One week later the agency is expected to also approve the vaccine developed by Moderna. A limited number of both will be shipped out to health care providers, including HHC, shortly after approval.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that the agency recommends providing the first doses to front line health care workers and nursing home residents. It will be up the states to determine how the vaccine will be allocated.

Gov. Ned Lamont is expected to discuss Connecticut’s plan for vaccine distribution Thursday. Advocates for the state’s incarcerated population are calling on the governor to include inmates along with those in other congregate settings, such as nursing homes and psychiatric facilities to receive the first doses of the vaccine.

“Governor Lamont who has been the nexus of Connecticut’s COVID-19 response, must ensure that Connecticut does not discriminate against people on the basis of which type of congregate facility they are in, but must instead base his vaccination response on scientific and public health evidence that clearly shows prisons and jails are among the least healthy places for people to be during this pandemic,” David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said.

The organization which has sued Lamont and the state Department of Correction over the handling of COVID-19 in the prisons contends that Blacks and Latinos are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 both inside the prison system and in the community.

“When the state decides to incarcerate someone, it assumes the legal and moral responsibility to keep them safe and healthy, a responsibility Connecticut must uphold during its COVID-19 vaccination rollout,” McGuire said.

DOC officials touted a less than 1% positivity rate within the prisons on Nov. 23. Within one week, the number of inmates who had tested positive for the disease rose to almost 300 for a nearly 3% positivity rate.

The vaccines are “game changer” in the fight against serious illness and deaths from the disease, said Troy, who likened the scientific achievement of developing the vaccines so quickly to man landing on the moon.

“There is hope for the first time as it relates to this pandemic,” Troy said.

Health care workers have found better ways of treating COVID patients leading to fewer deaths, but hospitals are filling quickly as a fall surge is racing across Connecticut and the entire country, the trio said.

“We’ve made huge strides, but the reality is, that’s not enough,” Pope said.

As of Tuesday morning, there were 294 COVID patients with 39 needing critical care HHC facilities around the state, Kumar said. State officials announced Monday that 1,098 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and a total of 5020 state residents had died from the disease. 
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The vaccines were able to be developed so quickly by harnessing new technology that replaced the old method of altering a live virus. The new method uses molecules that target a specific part of the virus, known as the “spike” to render it unable to replicate, Troy said.

The reason that some of the vaccines, like Pfizer’s, must be stored in ultra-cold temperatures is because there are no preservatives, making them even safer for wide distribution in the public.

“This is a miracle, there’s no other way to say it,” Pope said. “I’d give it to my mother, my family, this is what will allow people to go to restaurants and events and gather again.”

When the vaccine arrives it will first be given to health care workers, first responders and nursing home residents, Kumar said. Production of the vaccines will continue into 2021 with most of the public expected to be vaccinated by May or June, he said.

People will still have to wear masks, social distance and use good hand hygiene throughout the process until it is determined that most of the population has been vaccinated and the risk of transmission is low.

People will have to get two doses of the vaccine, 21 days apart, for it to be effective, Kumar said. So far the vaccines have proven to be safe and effective in wide variety of people including the elderly.

It was the recent surge in infections throughout the country that sped up the clinical trial process since it allowed more people to be exposed, giving scientists valuable information on how well the vaccine works, Troy said.

It is unclear until the FDA releases its findings, whether people will have to get a COVID-19 vaccination every year or every other year, Kumar said.

“This is a moment of hope for us,’ Troy said. “A moment when we can really change the narrative on the pandemic.”