As Washington state prepares to receive its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines — a Pfizer product expected to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA in coming days — Lewis County officials say they’re preparing for local distribution while grappling with several unknowns.
“Honestly, we’re all waiting for what the final plan is. That comes out of the CDC, which will inform the final plan that comes out of the Department of Health, which will then allow the local jurisdictions to operationalize as needed,” said Ed Mund, emergency preparedness coordinator for Lewis County Public Health and Social Services.
One thing that’s clear is that Lewis County’s vaccination efforts will be spearheaded by Providence, which is set to receive vaccine doses potentially as soon as this weekend. How many doses Providence will receive is still unknown.
“We’ve not seen an effort like this before, where we’re trying to build a system so quickly with so little information,” Public Health Director J.P. Anderson said Thursday.
Angela Maki, a regional Providence spokesperson, said Providence was still in the “major planning process,” as of Wednesday, and that both St. Peter Hospital and Centralia Hospital — which manage the bulk of the county’s severe COVID-19 patients — will be inoculating their own high-risk staff as well as county emergency responders. It’s a blessing, Mund said, considering how many local first responders are volunteers working at small agencies that don’t have the bandwidth to organize vaccination distribution.
“I really have to give kudos to Providence,” Mund said. “For Providence to stand up and say ‘we’re going to help you, we’re going to take care of you,’ it’s just a huge benefit to everyone in the county.”
The two hospitals have the cooling capacity to keep the vaccines at the required temperature, although the small number of doses will likely be distributed fast enough that long-term cooling won’t be necessary. Providence will follow the state Department of Health’s (DOH) guidance for who to prioritize for vaccination. High-risk health care workers, first responders and elderly residents in congregate care settings are all in Phase 1. According to Maki, most congregate care settings will be serviced not by Providence but by pharmacy chains.
Since the first round of distribution will be extremely limited (DOH estimates about 62,000 doses for the state), Maki predicted that Providence may only get part-way through Phase 1. Mund agreed, saying he expected emergency responders won’t get vaccinated until the last week of December at the earliest. Providence is currently analyzing the risk factors of every staffer to determine who to prioritize within the hospitals.
Mund could not disclose the locations where emergency responders will get the vaccine due to concerns that other residents, not prioritized according to the DOH phased approach, may arrive and demand a vaccine — something he said “has historically been an issue,” including during the H1N1 pandemic.
Although Anderson noted that the county had a mass dispensing exercise two years ago, where DOH drove a physical pallet of material into the county to practice state-wide emergency dispersal, the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccination will require different procedures, as doses will be delivered in waves. If everything goes according to plan, Anderson hopes the county will begin receiving weekly deliveries of the vaccine.
But then again, he noted, the county will likely be thrown several curveballs. Local officials are currently in talks with outside entities that could assist with technical and logistical challenges, although Anderson couldn’t provide more specific information, as contracts are still being written up.
“Our small town nature, I think, is going to be a strength in that as we get the curveballs that are sure to come … I feel confident we’ve got the partners in the community to make sure we can get the shots in the arms,” he said.
Other vaccines, like the Moderna vaccine, could soon start making their way to states as well, and may be easier to transport and distribute, Anderson said. Once vaccines are made available to more of the public, public health’s role will be to communicate to distributors who the priority populations are — and convincing those populations to take it.
“I think the big lift right now is making sure people understand that the vaccine is safe,” Anderson said. “And that this is the path forward.”
One strategy he said could help is getting the message to other community leaders, so that skeptical residents get assurance from other people they trust, rather than just from public health. Anderson and countless public health and healthcare workers, on the other hand, need no convincing.
“I’m ready to get in line with my family,” Anderson said. “For me, as a health official going through COVID-19, I’ve been praying for this. I’ve been waiting for this. It’s truly the light at the end of the tunnel.”
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