Last week, the drug giant Pfizer revealed that its experimental coronavirus vaccine is more than 90% effective. News outlets reported that the company could have doses available by December.
Not so fast, said Dr. Erin Carlson, associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington. Creating an effective vaccine is one thing, but getting it into the hands of every living person is quite another. Plus, experts don’t even know how long the vaccine will last.
“I don’t mean to be a negative Nelly, but this is a long-haul relationship. It’s a marriage that will eventually lead to divorce — thankfully — from COVID,” Carlson said. “But in between now and the divorce, there’s going to be a lot of counseling.”
It’s important to remember Pfizer’s vaccine is still undergoing clinical trials, she said. North Texans need to be prepared to wear masks and social distance through 2021.
“The science of vaccine distribution is almost as intense as the science of developing the vaccine,” Carlson said.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic indiscriminately killed millions of people before its reign of terror died down in a Darwinian fashion, Carlson said. This will be the world health community’s first time coordinating a global effort to distribute a vaccine.
Both vaccine frontrunners, ones from drug manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, must be stored at subzero temperatures, Carlson said. Each hospital system and its satellite clinics will need to be equipped with the proper refrigeration units, as will the airplanes and trucks that transport the vaccines.
Yet many countries don’t have reliable access to electricity, making such storage a problem, Carlson said. Until every corner of the earth receives the vaccine, COVID-19 will continue to plague vulnerable populations.
“Once we get the vaccine, we’re only halfway there,” she said. “We then have to manage the distribution to our entire country, and our entire world, before we will truly be free of this pandemic.”
The headache doesn’t stop there.
Once a vaccine has arrived and is in subzero storage, Carlson said there may be a limit to how many times health care workers can enter; opening the door will alter the unit’s internal temperature. Then, health workers must act fast to inject the vaccine before it spoils.
In addition, each hospital system will have to adapt its pandemic response playbook to adhere to vaccine distribution requirements, Carlson said.
Vaccine prioritization will hinge on a combination of factors, but health care personnel, frontline workers and people with comorbidities will likely be among the first in line, according to the state health department’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.
Dallas County Health and Human Services is working closely with the state’s health department and local partners to devise a foolproof plan for vaccine distribution, said director Dr. Philip Huang. It will likely take months before everyone in North Texas can get vaccinated.
“We are working as we speak on planning, and it’s an evolving process,” Huang said.
Pfizer’s vaccine will require two doses spaced weeks apart, Carlson said. It will be difficult to ensure everyone comes back in for their second injection after receiving the first.
Then, there’s the issue of persuading Americans to agree to a vaccine in the first place, Carlson said.
“Unless every American who is able to take the vaccine accepts the vaccine and gets both doses, we will always have pockets of vulnerability in our country,” Carlson said.
With more than 7 billion people on earth, distribution is going to take a while. Don’t forget to wear a mask while you wait.
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