Air ambulance pilots are the first among the pilot community to receive the Covid-19 vaccines, but the question of when the larger pilot community will have a turn remains unknown. That question was among those discussed Thursday during a National Air Transportation Association webinar, “Covid-19 Vaccine Intelligence for Pilots and Essential Workers.”
Ryan Waguespack, senior v-p of aircraft management, air charter services, and MROs for NATA, noted that some aviation workers, such as crew, can be on the higher “1b” priority list as essential workers, but “the problem is that it doesn’t correlate across the board state to state. In some states, 1b could translate to 1f.” He noted some states are skipping over essential workers to address elderly care first. Waguespack said he has heard from air ambulance operators in Arizona who have already received the vaccine. Other states have air ambulance as the first priority as well.
“It is challenging because it is state by state, health department by health department,” he said and noted that health departments are overwhelmed. Even so, Waguespack recommends that aircraft operators reach out to their own state health departments to find out how to get their workers in the queue.
Once workers receive vaccines, they should get verification. Some countries have discussed requirements for proof of vaccine. While there is some talk of electronic tracking, more likely a verification card may be necessary because not all countries will have capabilities for such electronic processing, said Dr. Thomas Faulkner, a senior aviation medical examiner who participated in the webinar.
Waguespack added that NATA is exploring means for its Known Crewmember program to assist in this area.
Once crewmembers receive the vaccine, there is a general 48-hour waiting period before returning to duty. But pilots should remain vigilant in case there is a reaction, Faulkner advised. He agreed with Waguespack that those who have had Covid might see a stronger reaction because the vaccine stirs up the body’s natural defenses.
He advises that those who have stronger reactions to report them to the location where the vaccination was received. If it is severe, such as requiring hospitalization, then the pilot's AME should know.
The vaccine, for now, is thought to be a “one and done” (or two and done with booster) with lifetime immunity, Faulkner said. But he cautioned that since vaccines are just now getting distributed, the medical community hasn’t built up the data yet to see if that will transpire. “This has gone at warp speed and we just don’t have the data,” he said. And there is talk of seasonal vaccines similar to the flu, he added.
Also, a single shot from the available vaccines might be 94 percent or 95 percent effective, Faulkner added, but the booster further generates a stronger defense shield for people. The days between first and second shots will vary from 21 days with the next vaccine anticipated to hit the U.S. market—potentially AstraZeneca in February—may have a four-week period. But for crew purposes, there will be a few days' leeway at either end. How much leeway is still unknown, since the data is still being developed.
These unknowns come with the speed of the development, Faulkner added, noting typical vaccines take seven years to reach the market and involve trials and retrials. “More will be learned about this vaccine [similar to how] we are learning every day about this virus,” he said, and stressed masks and testing will remain a critical piece of defense for some time.
Faulkner reminded webinar attendees that a person is challenged every day by viruses and pathogens and the immune system typically handles them. But “If you do get Covid-19 symptoms, respect them,” he said. “Raise your hand and take yourself out of the lineup and give yourself the chance to fight this off.” Otherwise, Faulkner added, a person could have a harder path to recovery.