DHEC prepares for storage, distribution challenges as COVID-19 vaccine rollout nears

Updated: Nov. 18, 2020 at 6:04 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - On Wednesday morning, Pfizer announced their COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective.

It comes just two days after Moderna said their vaccine trial showed 94% efficacy.

With both companies moving forward at full steam for requesting Federal Emergency Use Authorization, COVID-19 vaccine rollout could be just around the corner. On Wednesday morning, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control officials held a telebriefing, giving an update on the COVID-19 vaccine development and what the rollout might look like in South Carolina.

“We consider this very encouraging news, and we continue to be in close communication with our federal partners about the vaccine and the expected availability and the number of doses that may be available,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said.

DHEC officials said, at the earliest, it’s going to be weeks before a COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out nationwide, but the new developments are encouraging and they are getting ready for when that day comes.

Dr. Bell said they are making preparations for storage, distribution, and administration of the vaccine. She said the Pfizer vaccine needs ultra-cold storage of minus 80 degrees Celsius, and getting coolers able to house the vaccine to all potential administration sites is the focus right now.

The Moderna vaccine does not need the same ultra-cold storage. Moderna officials said for shipping and long term storage, the vaccine must be kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Stephen White, DHEC’s Immunizations Director, said they are also enrolling and approving organizations for administering the vaccine once it becomes available. He said over 175 organizations have enrolled for vaccine distribution, but more are continuing to sign up.

Dr. Bell said South Carolina’s vaccine plan is to distribute the vaccine to most at-risk populations first, which could include frontline workers and nursing home residents. However, DHEC officials stressed that that day won’t come until the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have passed all the safety protocols.

“These are our key messages: That South Carolina is committed to the fair and equitable distribution across our state, that when that vaccine is available it will be limited in supply initially,” Dr. Bell said. “Meaning that not everyone who wants to be vaccinated when the first doses become available will be able to receive it first. Finally, no vaccine will be released and administered until it’s undergone the rigorous scientific and clinical testing that is required as part of all vaccine development.”

DHEC officials said there are still things public health officials are waiting to learn about the vaccine trial results. Dr. Jane Kelly, DHEC’s Assistant State Epidemiologist, said while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines each show about 95% efficacy for patients not becoming ill with COVID-19 symptoms, it’s not clear at this time whether the vaccine prevents an individual from being contagious of COVID-19.

Dr. Bell said DHEC will not require anyone to get the vaccine but stressed that widespread vaccination must be completed in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s going to take us quite some time before we can achieve high coverage,” she said. “It’s very dependent on vaccine manufacturing processes and the doses that are available and very importantly on people’s willingness to receive the vaccine when it does become available. The faster we can get the population covered the quicker we can get to what we are all looking forward to as more normalized activities.”

DHEC officials said the vaccine will be of no charge to citizens, saying the federal government, along with insurance companies will be footing the bill for production and administration of the vaccine.

DHEC stressed that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have undergone three phases of clinical trials, and the vaccine is being held to the same standards and procedures as previous vaccine trials.

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