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Operation Warp Speed in New Orleans: The Science and the Fiction Behind the COVID-19 Vaccine

09:00 December 29, 2020
By: Laurel Shimasaki

It has been a couple weeks since Louisiana received its first COVID-19 vaccines. Of those, all 39,000 Pfizer vaccines went to staff in New Orleans area hospitals.

News of the first Louisiana vaccines was big enough to be covered in California by SFGate, a paper with a focus on the Bay Area. Why would a San Francisco paper be interested in vaccinations happening at Ochsner Health in Jefferson Parish? Maybe they have a soft spot for NOLA. Or maybe, it's fitting for a Silicon Valley outlet to report on Ochsner turning the event into a livestream. Footage of medical workers receiving the first shots in the state was broadcasted via the internet; it was peak 2020.

The Pfizer vaccine is not a one-and-done, but rather a first of two required doses for immunity. Despite these technicalities, the gravity of the moment at Ochsner was not lost. John Bel Edwards was in attendance at the Ochsner vaccination livestream. He stated that Louisiana was expecting 40,000 vaccines to arrive this week, with even more Moderna vaccines to follow.

The good vaccination news comes at a time when Louisiana finds itself in the grips of a devastating third wave. On December 20, the Louisiana Department of Health reported 65 deaths, the highest number of in a single day since July 29. Nearing the end of the pandemic means grappling with optimistic joy while continuing to live through the sorrow.

The vaccine is good news with a caveat attached—limited availability. The Centers for Disease Control state that "healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities should be offered the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines." There is no definitive timeline for when most people can expect a vaccine. The CDC simply states that "as vaccine availability increases, vaccination recommendations will expand to include more groups."

In Louisiana, the first steps outlined by the CDC have already begun. They will continue into January, as more vaccines arrive. When vaccines are available for the public, The Louisiana Department of Health will release information on where to go. This stage is unofficially estimated to begin in mid-2021, according to The Times-Picayune.

As the vaccine is made available, hopes rise, but so do questions. How are the vaccines getting here? The answer is Operation Warp Speed.

Though SciFi in name—borrowed from Star Trek—Operation Warp Speed is the partnership between the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and the Department of Defense. These federal agencies working together along with private firms can more effectively order and distribute the vaccines from manufacturers.

Operation Warp Speed does not mean corners were cut in the quality or safety of the vaccine. Recent headlines have fixated on a miscalculation in Operation Warp Speed's estimates of how many doses of vaccines states will receive. Newsweek covered Gustave Perna's apology for promising states more than could be delivered. While disappointing, this mistake does not reflect on the safety or effectiveness of the vaccine.

To skeptics, concerns over the sooner-than-expected arrival of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine authorizations have clouded the moment. Is the shot too fast to trust? Infectious disease specialist Dr. Manisha Juthani explained on NPR's All Things Considered that while the vaccine arrived quickly, the science and technology behind the COVID-19 vaccine have had decades of research leading up to this moment. Medicine has rapidly advanced since the invention of the smallpox vaccine in 1796. Still, it remains normal to have questions or concerns, which is why the CDC makes up-to-date information available on their website.

While news of the vaccine is something to get excited about, it's important to remember that the vaccine is preventative, not curative. It's crucial to continue our best efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The first batches of vaccines mean finally receiving a hazy answer to the tortuous question: When will this end? Through the haze, we know that we are not there yet, but an end is in sight.

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