As experimental vaccines for COVID-19 await emergency use authorization in the United States, officials in Indiana say they are already running drills to make sure hospitals are prepared to administer vaccinations quickly and minimize waste of the limited supply.
“I have a high level of confidence, quite frankly,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday at his weekly press briefing. “It’s not just that logistics is in our DNA, but we’re up for the moment.”
On Wednesday, Britain became the first country in the world to authorize Pfizer’s vaccine and said it could be dispensing shots within days. But in the United States, Pfizer is still waiting to hear from the Food and Drug Administration whether its vaccine can be used here.
Pfizer applied last month for emergency authorization to use its vaccine, just days after the company and its German partner BioNTech said the vaccine appeared 90% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease in a large, ongoing study.
The vaccine requires two doses about 28 days apart and must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. On Wednesday, Indiana health officials said they were working with about 50 hospitals to administer the vaccine, which requires lots of special handling.
“They are fully ready and understand everything that is needed to take proper care of the vaccine, because it is really important to us that we waste as minimal as possible,” Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the state’s chief medical officer, said at Holcomb’s press briefing. “The pharmacies at the hospitals are prepared. All of our hospitals will have the ultra-low freezers to keep the vaccine. The places that don’t will keep them in the thermal shippers that will come from Pfizer.”
Another biotech firm, Moderna, applied on Monday for emergency authorization to use an experimental vaccine it is developing. It has tested the vaccine in 30,000 people, and said it is 94.1% effective. The company said that if approved, it could begin giving injections to Americans as early as Dec. 21.
Holcomb said he expects to have more information by next Wednesday’s press conference on when and where doses will be available, but health officials cautioned that early supplies will be limited and will be reserved for front-line health care workers and vulnerable Hoosiers, including those in long-term-care facilities. Vaccinations for the general population might not be available until spring.
“Depending on how much vaccine we get, we’re prepared to move through our different phases,” Weaver said.
Dr. Kris Box, Indiana’s state health commissioner, struck an optimistic note that the vaccines could be available within weeks. “This is an incredible blessing that we already have two vaccines. This is the way we get back to the new normal. … This is the way we are able to resume our lives as Hoosiers.”
The Indiana Hospital Association, the Indiana State Medical Association and the Indiana State Nurses Association released a joint statement Wednesday pledging to follow a “safe, transparent and effective process” for administering vaccines to all who are eligible and choose to get vaccinated.
“Based on limited supplies in the first round of distribution, our initial goal is to protect those with the most risk of exposure, prevent them from giving it to vulnerable populations, and reinforce our healthcare workforce by preventing illness,” the groups said. “Until Indiana has been broadly immunized, we continue to urge Hoosiers to wear a face mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands, and stay home when you are sick.”
In related developments on Wednesday:
- Holcomb said he was not planning to issue any new “blanket policies” or restrictions, even as Indiana continues to set new records almost every day for new COVID-19 cases. The state health department on Wednesday reported 6,655 new cases, the largest number of new cases since Nov. 21. Statewide hospitalizations due to COVID-19 fell slightly, from an all-time high Monday of 3,460 to 3,441 on Tuesday. Holcomb said that instead of restrictions, he favored more education and communication on how Hoosiers can minimize risk of getting infected.
- Holcomb said Indiana has $60 million left to be allocated of the $300 million program the state established to help local units of government with pandemic-related expenses. The program is funded with part of the $2.4 billion the state received from the the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, which was established in the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act. He said he is asking federal officials for an extension on spending that money; under the current law, it must be spent by Dec. 31. The state has spent much of the money on COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, health care providers and personal protective equipment.
- Health officials here said hospitals, testing labs and other health facilities continue to face huge stress from the COVID-19 surge, and the worst is probably not over, due to Thanksgiving travel and get-togethers, which likely increased the spread of the virus. “We’re all bracing for the next few weeks to unfold,” Holcomb said.