State, county preps for vaccine distribution

Andrew Bahl
An early trial of a potential vaccine for the COVID-19 is shown in March. Kansas is preparing for the first shipment of vaccine doses to come in mid-December.

Even as federal regulators weigh approving two COVID-19 vaccines, officials say Kansas is full steam ahead on readying for their distribution, which could come as soon as the second week of December.

Vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna are nearing the final step of an emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, with both companies formally seeking that approval last month.

And while it will likely not administer any doses in the first wave of vaccine deliveries, the Harvey County Health Department will be ready and play a role in distribution.

“The Harvey County Health Department, as well as other providers in the county, have applied for and been approved to provide COVID-19 vaccinations as they become available,” said Kyle McCaskey, director of public information for Harvey County.

The county has also participated in a regional research project in order to pre-plan for a future COVID-19 vaccine distribution in the form of an online survey is being used to collect data from residents of south-central Kansas. The survey, performed by the University of Kansas Medical Center, covers Butler, Harvey, Cowley, Kingman. Marion, Reno, Sedgwick and Sumner counties.

Initially the health department will offer logistical support to health care providers and educational services as the vaccine makes its way into Harvey County.

“Potential COVID-19 vaccinations in the immediate future will be targeted to medical professionals, who can conduct vaccinations of their own staff,” McCaskey said. “Vaccinations from the Health Department for the general public remain several weeks or months out at this time.”

A top official with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said Tuesday that “all expectations” are that the Pfizer vaccine will receive the preliminary green light from the FDA on Dec. 10, with the agency then expected to approve the Moderna proposal on Dec. 14.

Phil Griffin, deputy director for KDHE’s Bureau of Disease Control and Prevention, said there is the intent is to “pre-position” doses of the vaccine so they can be moved to states as soon as a decision is reached later this month.

The Pfizer vaccine is trickier to handle because it requires a level of cold storage that isn’t normally required, whereas the Moderna vaccine can use the same kind of freezer utilized for immunizations against chickenpox or other diseases.

But Griffin said five sites with adequate storage have been identified to get the Pfizer vaccine in the days following Dec. 10, with administration set to begin after a clearer picture develops of who is allowed to be vaccinated immediately.

Kansas was told Monday to expect 23,750 doses of the Pfizer vaccine initially. That shipment won’t cover the roughly 40,000 individuals in the top priority group, which is primarily comprised of health care workers.

“Obviously you can see at the very beginning we are not going to have enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone,” Griffin said.

He added, however, that Pfizer data indicates only 45% of the highest priority group have indicated they would be willing to seek a vaccine as soon as it is available, which will ease issues with supply.

Next in line will be roughly 100,000 first responders and then individuals who are elderly or have severely compromised immune systems.

The state expects that other front-line workers can be vaccinated by the spring, with the general public beginning to be served over the summer.

Griffin noted decisions still need to be made about the order in which other essential workers will receive the vaccine.

“Is the waitstaff at a local restaurant at a higher risk than a factory worker who is confined and always exposed to the same group of people?” he asked. “There are still some tough decisions to be made along the way.”

Still, the state is readying for those types of decisions, and KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said last month they are confident in their planning.

The state’s formal vaccine distribution plan has been reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It lays out coordination with health care facilities, including hospitals, long-term care facilities and clinics, about doling out the doses.

“I feel our immunization distribution plan is good,” Norman said on a conference call last month. “The providers are stepping up to be the ones to distribute.”

And part of the blueprint is outreach to various groups in the community, including those who work with people of color and residents with disabilities, to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Norman said they have been doing dry runs to test the supply chain and ensure state agencies, including the Kansas National Guard, are ready for vaccine deployment.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Tuesday that the agency and its private-sector partners, involving companies like FedEx, are ready for an “immediate mass shipment” of the vaccine.

As long as smaller quantities of the vaccine are being distributed, the goal is to push out the doses as quickly as possible, ideally within 10 days of receipt. That makes it easier for the state to get subsequent deliveries.

For the Pfizer vaccine, a temporary cold storage device is set to be used to keep the samples at an adequate temperature, albeit for a shorter period of time.

Still, the vaccines from both companies will require two doses, which also increases some of the hurdles involved to help citizens get fully inoculated.

But despite the urgency and challenges in bringing both vaccines to market, Griffin underscored confidence in the process.

“We know from everything we have seen that it is a highly (effective) vaccine ... and has a very good, safety profile,” he said.

– Chad Frey, Newton Kansan, contributed to this article.