After months of restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, new vaccines may soon offer a return to normalcy. After encouraging trial data, Pfizer and Moderna have both applied for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for their respective vaccines, and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was granted emergency authorization Friday night. Now, the focus shifts to distribution.
The FDA grants emergency use authorization to allow an unapproved medical product to be used in a public health emergency when there are no approved and available alternatives.
The vaccine will cause some distribution challenges. For example, the Pfizer vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, and both vaccines must be given in two separate doses. One dose of the Pfizer vaccine is about 52% effective, whereas two doses are 95% effective. There is also no evidence that the protection from one dose lasts more than a few weeks without the second dosage.
The University of Georgia will play a role in the vaccine’s distribution in Athens. According to a Dec. 11 ArchNews email, the university will act as a dispensing point later in the spring semester. In an email to The Red & Black, UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said the university will help distribute the vaccine, although the details of the plan have not been finalized.
“As a Point of Dispensing (POD) for the Strategic National Stockpile, the University of Georgia will participate in the federal and state coordinated COVID-19 vaccine administration emergency response process,” Trevor said. “Beyond that commitment to the campus community as part of the regional strategy, many of the specifics surrounding vaccine distribution are still evolving.”
Not everyone will have access to the vaccine immediately. Instead, Georgia will prioritize certain groups of people first, including health care workers, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
In a press conference on Dec. 8, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said she expects to have over several hundred thousand doses initially, which the state will receive in weekly portions. Toomey said Georgia will follow guidance from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an independent organization that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on which Georgians will receive vaccine doses first.
Health care providers and long term care facility staff and residents will be given the vaccine first, followed by essential workers and older individuals with preexisting conditions, Toomey said. The vaccine will be free to everyone who is eligible to receive it.
The initial vaccine supply will not be enough to vaccinate all health care workers and long term care facility staff and residents. Health care workers who work directly with COVID-19 patients are at higher risk and will therefore be prioritized, Toomey said.
The state will be able to hold the vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna. The freezers needed for the Pfizer vaccine are located throughout the state, and Pfizer has provided special transportation vehicles. The state also has the infrastructure to distribute the vaccine to rural communities, Toomey said.
Toomey said communication is important to get people to come back weeks after the first dose to get the second. It’s important that the state is transparent that there are expected temporary side effects such as a fever, Toomey said. She emphasized that a large proportion of Georgians would need to get vaccinated to stop the spread of the coronavirus and that the vaccines are safe. Gov. Brian Kemp said he and Toomey would take the vaccine to assure Georgians that it is safe.
“Until we can vaccinate as many Georgians as possible, we will not have the level of immunity within this state as a whole to prevent continued spread,” Toomey said.
Communication will be especially important in African American communities, Toomey said, which have been hit hard by COVID-19.
The vaccine will not be available for everyone until the summer. She also encouraged Georgians to get a flu shot.
Giving priority to these groups could have a large impact on the death rate. According to the Georgia Department of Community Health, 27 of Athens-Clarke County’s 55 deaths have come from long-term care facilities. In an email statement to The Red & Black, the Communications Department for PruittHealth — which has two long-term care facility locations in Athens — said it is preparing to distribute the vaccine.
“As part of our Commitment to Caring, we actively are preparing for distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines among residents and frontline staff at PruittHealth,” the department said. “We are keeping families informed as we learn more about distribution timing and the consent process, and will notify families when the vaccine is administered at their loved one’s location.”
Mayor Kelly Girtz said he has spoken with the Georgia Department of Public Health. Although the local government will have a limited role in the distribution, he said the ACC government would provide some logistical support.
“I do believe it’s going to be important that everyone gets vaccinated,” Girtz said. “If space is needed or logistical support is needed, then we provide that too.”
Girtz also emphasized that the vaccines are not available yet and encouraged Athens residents to continue following proper safety guidelines.