Vermont could receive limited doses of a vaccine for COVID-19 by early December, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said on Friday.
It would likely take months longer for the general public to get access to the vaccine, however, and as the virus continues to spread, officials urged Vermonters to continue to take steps to slow transmission. That includes avoiding gatherings with members of other households, practicing social distancing and avoiding nonessential travel.
Pfizer, the first company to complete Phase 3 trials for its vaccine candidate, said Friday that it had submitted its application for an emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That announcement came just days after it announced preliminary findings from its trial data showing that its vaccine is 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infections.
A second vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, may not be far behind. An independent monitoring board said last week that interim data show the vaccine is also about 95 percent effective, and the company said it expects that it will be ready to apply for an emergency use authorization within weeks.
Both companies have taken the unprecedented step of starting to manufacture their vaccines before their trial phases were completed, meaning that the companies would both be ready to begin distribution immediately upon receiving FDA approval.
It will likely take months longer to produce enough doses to vaccinate the entire American public. But state officials on Friday said recent vaccine news offers signs of hope, just eight months after the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Vermont.
“Perhaps the earliest Vermont could see a vaccine on its doorsteps, for a limited number of doses, would be in the range of December 10,” said Levine.
There are still logistical concerns surrounding the distribution of the vaccines, however. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at a frigid -70 degrees Celsius, far below the temperatures that a standard freezer can reach. And both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine must be given in two doses, spaced several weeks apart.
The temperature requirement has been a particular concern for distribution of the vaccine to rural areas that are far from large medical centers. But in Vermont, Levine said most areas of the state will have the freezer capacity to handle that, and that the vaccine can be transported to sites where it will be administered at slightly warmer temperatures using dry ice without risking degradation.
The state’s draft distribution plan prioritizes the first doses of the vaccine for health care workers and first responders who are at a high risk of interacting with COVID-19 patients.
Though Levine noted that that plan may still change depending on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, the state has already begun outreach to determine how many people it will need to reach in that first-priority group.
John Keating, the rescue chief for Saint Michael's Fire and Rescue, said state officials recently asked for current rosters of students who volunteer in both the fire and rescue services. St. Mike's Fire and Rescue serves not only the campus, but the greater area.
"I was shocked," Keating said, of hearing that vaccine doses could arrive in Vermont next month. He was sure members would welcome the news. "It would be a relief for the providers," he said.
Squad members use personal protective gear when they transport patients, he said. Some of those patients have turned out to be COVID-19 positive, and the state's contact tracers have contacted the squad to let the volunteers know.
In those instances, the volunteers have simply had to monitor themselves for any potential symptoms. As St. Mike's students, they are all tested weekly for COVID-19 and, Keating said, to his knowledge no rescue volunteers have tested positive.
The next group that the state will prioritize for the vaccine are those populations most at risk from contracting COVID-19, including those over the age of 65 and those whose underlying conditions put them at severe risk. The state has begun working with long-term care homes on plans to get their residents vaccinated.
Levine has estimated that, if a vaccine were to receive a rapid approval, the state may receive 20,000 doses by the end of the year. That would not be enough to vaccinate everyone in those two high-priority groups, he noted at Friday’s press conference.
Kelly Dougherty, deputy commissioner at the Vermont Department of Health, said the state is planning for many different vaccine supply scenarios.
“We’ve done a lot of number crunching as far as, how many health care workers do we have in different settings,” she said. They are considering scenarios for having 5,000 doses, 10,000 doses and more, she said. The state's COVID-19 Vaccine Implementation Advisory Committee is helping with that work, she said.
Once the highest-priority groups have received the vaccinations, the state would next offer vaccinations to teachers and other school staff, workers in critical industries who are at risk of exposure, people with underlying conditions that put them at moderate risk of complications, and those in group living situations where an outbreak could spread quickly, like prisons and homeless shelters.
The third-tier priority group outlined in the state’s vaccination plan includes children, young adults and other workers who may be at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 through their jobs.
And, once there is ample supply of the vaccine, the state will make it available to the general public.
In each phase, said Dougherty, health officials will be using an “equity lens” to make sure the vaccine is reaching populations in minority communities that have health disparities.