Vaccines are coming. Three vaccine makers — Pfizer, Moderna and Astra-Zeneca — have announced initial data all showing around 90% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19.
Alaska is getting ready to distribute them over the coming months. On Dec. 10, the federal Food and Drug Administration will meet to consider an Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer and possibly Moderna vaccines, Tessa Walker Linderman, co-lead for Alaska’s Vaccine Task Force, said on a call with the media on Monday.
If the FDA awards the authorization, then the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will send out guidelines for how states should distribute the vaccines. That could be as quickly as 24 hours. Once those recommendations are out, the drugs will start flowing to states.
“The very, very soonest timeline that we could be looking at vaccine would be Dec. 11,” Walker Linderman said.
Most Alaskans, however, will not get one at first.
Priority will likely go to health care workers, long-term care facilities and emergency medical technicians, Walker Linderman said. Hospitals, pharmacies and community health centers will be distribution points.
From there, answers get fuzzier. Local communities will have some control over directing vaccines, but much of the guidance will come from the state and federal governments.
“ACIP is putting out these large recommendations, and then within those recommendations that state will look at those and see how those fit Alaska,” Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink said.
“But even within that, communities and even local hospitals are going to have some availability to make some adjustments as well. And that’s going to depend on location and what stage in allocation we are in.”
There are also questions about which vaccine is best suited for Alaska. All three look like they work well so far, but some have logistical challenges.
Pfizer’s needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius or colder. Few communities, especially those off the road system, have that kind of cold chain. The Moderna vaccine only needs to be at minus 20 degrees and AstraZeneca’s can be above freezing, so they might make more sense for Alaska.
Some vaccines might work better for different groups, state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said.
“We might see differential effectiveness of these vaccines by subpopulations: the elderly … middle-aged adults, children,” he said.
“That’s all information that’s forthcoming. We don’t have that information yet, but that will also weigh into our decision making process.”
Officials will likely still suggest that those who’ve been infected with the virus still be vaccinated, but it’s unclear so far.
“The CDC continues to say ‘we’re not sure yet,’” McLaughin said.
“And that’s something that the ACIP will look at, and I suspect that people who have had the infection are likely still going to be recommended to get the vaccine.”
When it does arrive, the vaccine will almost certainly take two shots. All three of the furthest-ahead vaccines require two doses. Officials recommended patience and continued adherence to virus prevention protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing.
“It’s not like a plane is going to arrive full of vaccine and all of this is going to be over,” Kodiak public health nurse Bonny Weed said.
McLaughlin said that for Alaskans who are not at high risk or frontline workers, March or April is a realistic timeframe.
“It really will depend on what the science shows. If data continues to show what they show now, that will speed the timeline,” he said.
Kodiak reported two new cases of the virus on Monday. The method of exposure for both is still under investigation. Twelve people finished their quarantine period, bringing Kodiak’s active case total to 67. Since the start of the pandemic, 233 people have been infected on the Kodiak archipelago.
The state Department of Health and Social Services reported 503 new cases on Monday, with no new deaths.