A COVID-19 vaccine might be months away for the public, but the work has been underway for a while to ready South Carolina for the distribution, storage and administration of the vaccines.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said the past two weeks of news regarding vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been encouraging. A state interim vaccine plan was submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in October, she said, and it met all expectations at the federal level.
Dr. Jane Kelly, assistant state epidemiologist, said evidence shows both vaccines under development are about 95% effective, and Pfizer might apply for emergency use applications in a few days. Still, approval will take longer than that, and requires animal and human testing.
“That process, FDA estimates, will take at least two weeks,” she said. “We have good preliminary data that is efficacious, but not all the information is in.”
A vaccine available for the public is still several months out, Bell said. For the immediate future, DHEC is still urging people to wear face coverings, practice physical distancing and hand hygiene and to avoid gatherings, including gatherings at home, to prevent exposure. She said 90% of the population would have to be protected by the vaccine before she could recommend returning to “normal activities” without the use of masks, and it will take time to reach the requisite numbers.
Planning for the vaccine’s arrival includes equipping facilities with cold storage. The Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold storage, needing specialized freezers that many parts of the state don’t have access to yet. State officials are working to get those in place, and encouraging health care providers to go through the enrollment process to become vaccine providers.
“Cost will not be a barrier, because the federal government has committed to making the vaccine available at no charge,” Bell said.
Dr. Stephen White, DHEC’s immunization director, said he doesn’t know how many doses South Carolina will get. About 175 organizations throughout the state have enrolled to try and become approved vaccine providers, but they’re in various stages of the approval process.
White said once vaccines become available, the first phase of administering them will look at critical populations, such as health care workers, then move toward vaccinating the general population as the supply increases. Until then, however, state and federal officials are remaining in constant contact to ensure that systems are in place to receive and distribute the vaccines.