DHEC: ‘Vaccine distribution plan hits marks, general population possibly won’t receive for months’

S.C. planning on COVID vaccine rollout

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - There are promising developments on the vaccine front. The Carolinas are beginning their vaccine rollout plans.

It comes after recent news that both Pfizer and Moderna report their respected vaccines are 95 percent effective - benefitting older adults considered to be “highest risk.”

”It’s a very odd feeling knowing you have something that is killing millions of people,” says COVID-19 survivor Traci Patterson.

The COVID-19 deaths are up to 1.3 million people worldwide. A significant portion of those are from the United States.

Patterson says her family was lucky. COVID-19 ripped through Traci Patterson’s family after a visit with her parents. Her dad is high risk being older than 60 and recovering from Leukemia.

”You have to go see Grandma, because you can’t get it from people you know, only strangers,” Patterson said sarcastically.

The experience drove her to prepared to be first in line when a vaccine comes out. ”I absolutely do not want anything to do with this again,” she says.

Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines are the verge of federal approval. It could come as soon as December. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) assistant state epidemiologist Jane Kelly says it could take two weeks or longer once the companies ask for it.

Kelly says the FDA reviews all the documents in the studies which could be hundreds of pages. She also says the review goes from preclinical studies to animal studies through Phase 1, 2, and 3 human studies, which is filled with safety and efficacy data.

“We consider this very encouraging news,” says Dr. Linda Bell, DHEC’s lead epidemiologist.

Many people questioned how safe a vaccine with this quick of a turnaround could be. Kelly assures that the vaccine process was like any other. She calls this particular vaccine development “unique” because drug companies were ahead of the game. She says China released the genetic code for the virus back in January, which gave companies “a blueprint” for the virus.

Kelly adds that SARS-CoV-2, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, is closely related to SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. When SARS and MERS were infecting people worldwide, companies started to make vaccine for those disease as well.

Kelly says the two were contained quickly enough that the vaccines were dropped. However, it sped up the process because companies had access to preclinical studies.

”No skips were stepped in this vaccine development,” says Kelly.

Another hurdle for the team--storing. The vaccinations, specifically Pfizer’s, need to be stored properly so that it remains effective. Pfizer needs to be in a “ultra-cold environment” at -112 degrees Fahrenheit. Moderna’s does not need to be as cold at about -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Bell says not many distribution centers in the Palmetto state have storage capabilities.

DHEC Immunization Coordinator Stephen White says about 175 distributors have signed up to give the vaccine out but they have to go through a strict evaluation to meet those storing needs. This does not mean everybody will be accepted. However, White says DHEC is working on getting more distributors.

Lead epidemiologist Linda Bell says the state is less worried about the vaccine’s safety and more on who will get it.

”Not everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to receive it,” says Bell.

There is no telling when the general public will get the vaccine. Bell says it is still a ways away. DHEC Immunization Coordinator Stephen White says the distribution plan is still being finalized, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says South Carolina’s plan met “all expectations at the federal level” according to Bell.

The first target - called Phase 1A - is healthcare providers who can work to keep COVID-19 deaths down. Once the vaccine is ready for the public, Bell says do not expect to be back to normal in a snap. Health experts say at least 90 percent of the population needs to get a vaccine to stop wearing masks and socially distancing.

Kelly says DHEC is not going to require people to get a vaccine, but is strongly encouraging it once it is available.

Bell says, “The faster we can get the population covered the more quickly we can move to what we’re all looking forward to which is normalized activities.”

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