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Florida Health Experts Weigh Risks, Benefits Of Holding Back Second Doses Of Coronavirus Vaccines

There are still a lot of concerns surrounding the federal government's recommendation to stop holding back second doses of coronavirus vaccines in order to get more shots in arms now.

Last week, shortly after President-Elect Joe Biden announced his administration would do this once he took office, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration was also changing course.

The move created confusion for states and hospitals, particularly after the Washington Post reported over the weekend that the federal government had already exhausted its reserve supply of second doses before Azar made his remarks. That meant communities expecting a mass influx of vaccines this week are left to deal with limited allocations similar to what they were previously receiving.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said Florida is committed to getting everyone both doses, but said the state could change how it distributes them.

Allocating vaccines without factoring in an ample reserve supply of second doses is risky, according to Jay Wolfson, public health professor at the University of South Florida.

He said even though the vaccines are authorized for emergency use, we're still learning a lot about them.

Wolfson said it's critical to stick to the protocol manufacturers used when they tested the vaccines, because he said that is the best way to ensure the 95% efficacy rates the vaccines achieved in clinical trials.

For Pfizer, that means getting a second dose about three weeks after the first; for Moderna, four weeks.

“If you say, well let's just release all the vaccines, the second doses as first doses, to get more people vaccinated, what happens, God forbid, if there's a problem with the supply chain or something happens and you don't have enough second doses to come in at the right time?” Wolfson said.

The slow rollout of vaccines so far and recent report that the Trump administration may have misled the public about how much vaccine is available fuel anxiety that limited supplies could continue to cause distribution problems.

But having to delay the timing of second doses may not be the end of the world, according to Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida.

“The data from the clinical trials, particularly from the Moderna trials, suggests that within two weeks of your first dose you actually do have fairly substantial immunity,” he said. “And so consequently, the idea of delaying the second dose if need be for logistics reasons is not irrational, and in fact that's what the United Kingdom has done.”

Morris said getting the second dose eventually is important, especially for longer-lasting protection. But he said with coronavirus cases surging in the state, the priority now needs to be getting as many people vaccinated as possible – and fast.

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