It's finally here: a vaccine for COVID-19.
In the United States, all eyes are on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is reviewing Pfizer's vaccine. Local officials expect that it will be approved this week; documents released by the agency assert that the drug is highly effective against the coronavirus after the first dose. Another vaccine, created by the American biotechnology firm Moderna, is also awaiting FDA authorization.
Meanwhile, local public health officials are prepping for the day when the FDA gives the Pfizer vaccine the green light. But the pandemic isn't going to be solved instantly once vaccines are approved in the United States. There's currently a limited amount of vaccine. Only certain types of workers and people will get the drug at first, and you should absolutely still keep wearing masks and social distancing.
Here's what Arizonans can expect as the vaccine reaches the state:
The bad news is that, for now, there's not enough of the Pfizer vaccine to go around.
Marcy Flanagan, executive director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said at a December 7 press briefing that officials are hoping that 60,000 initial doses will reach Arizona, roughly 40,000 of which will come to Maricopa County and Pima County — the two most populous counties in the state. Maricopa County expects to receive its first batch by December 15 and to start vaccinating people on December 17.
Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said at a December 2 briefing that she believes the state will receive "hundreds of thousands" of doses by the "end of December." The vaccine shipments to the state will likely come on a "weekly" basis, and the Moderna vaccine, assuming it gets approved by the FDA, will be "prioritized" for rural areas because it has less "stringent" temperature-related storage requirements, she added.
Due to the limited supply, the first doses of the vaccine will only be offered to "front line" healthcare workers, emergency medical personnel, and staff and residents at long-term care facilities. These restrictions are based on guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month on who should be prioritized for vaccination.
"By protecting healthcare workers, from providers to long-term care staff to cleaning crews, we are protecting those that have the highest exposure and whose health will help preserve our healthcare system," Flanagan said at the December 7 briefing. "We know that our hospitals are under immense strain right now. Protecting healthcare staff keeps hospital beds staffed so they can continue to provide care."
"It will be many months before most people will have the chance to get the vaccine," she added.
An estimated 123,000 to 300,000 people make up this first group, Flanagan said at a December 7 briefing with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Local healthcare providers, such as Banner Health, Abrazo Health Care, and Dignity Healthcare will be operating the five regional locations to issue the vaccine; volunteer medical professionals will also be assisting in running the vaccine distribution sites. However, people at long-term care facilities will get their vaccines through a "pharmacy program" being operated at the "state level," Flanagan said.
"The county is the boots-on-the-ground decider on where to allocate the vaccines," said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. "The big hospital systems will be getting that Pfizer vaccine first."
People will not be required to take the vaccine, though some employers may require that their employees get vaccinated. The vaccine will be provided for free — even for people without health insurance. An administration fee may be billed to insurance companies for people who have healthcare coverage.
Eventually, as more vaccines become available, the next grouping of people will be able to get the vaccine. Law enforcement, teachers, childcare workers, "high risk" seniors over the age of 65, and other essential workers will be allowed to get vaccinated. This phase is estimated to begin sometime in early January 2021 and will last until spring.
Over the spring and summer, the vaccine will be issued to the broader population. By summer, it will be widely available at healthcare providers that people are familiar with, like common pharmacy chains.
"As more doses become available, more people will be able to get the vaccine," Flanagan said at the briefing. "We anticipate that it will be available for the general public by spring. But that may change depending on how the vaccines are approved and how quickly doses are manufactured."
"You can imagine one day when this vaccine becomes like any other vaccine — you’ll be able to go to your primary care physician, a pharmacy, an urgent care center, any of those places … to receive the vaccine," she added. "But we’re not anticipating anything like that until next summer."
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