PROVIDENCE — Thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive in Rhode Island by mid-December, but that’s not because the state is participating in Pfizer’s vaccine pilot program.
The pilot program is intended to help the pharmaceutical giant work out the logistics of distributing their vaccine nationally, not give certain states earlier access to the long-awaited shots.
The four states in the program (Rhode Island, Texas, Tennessee, and New Mexico) were chosen for their immunization infrastructure, population diversity, relative sizes, and their need to reach people in urban and rural settings. Pfizer has to figure out how the vaccine doses will be safely stored at sub-zero temperatures, how healthcare providers will order the doses, and how the vaccines will be allotted, administered, and tracked.
“We have been talking to Pfizer for the past several weeks, learning about their process and helping them understand how vaccination happens at the state level, and challenges of cold-chain storage,” said Rhode Island Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken. “This will help Pfizer develop planning tools and early training materials for all states.”
While Rhode Island won’t get vaccine doses early, the state will get a tailored plan, developed by Pfizer, for distributing the vaccine. Wendelken said this will give Rhode Island a “leg up” when the vaccine completes the safety reviews and is released — possibly by the end of next week.
Governor Gina M. Raimondo had pitched Rhode Island’s strong immunization rates to Pfizer.
“We have spent decades building up an immunization infrastructure with healthcare providers, schools, community organizations and others that run clinics to make vaccinations available at no cost in people’s communities,” Wendelken said.
Kerry LaPlante, pharmacy professor at the University of Rhode Island and member of the COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee to Rhode Island’s Vaccine Advisory Committee, said Rhode Island is in “constant communication” with Pfizer, working out a strategy.
The first hurdle was figuring out how to keep the vaccines very cold. Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at -70 degree Celsius, and Moderna’s vaccine at -20 degree Celsius.
LaPlante said that Rhode Island’s hospitals and URI’s School of Pharmacy have the ultra-cold storage required for Pfizer’s vaccine, and the community pharmacies can handle the typical cold storage needed for Moderna. Both pharmaceutical companies have also developed thermal shippers in which the vaccines can be stored for up to 15 days, LaPlante said.
Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told the Rhode Island House COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force on Wednesday that Rhode Island could receive the first doses of Pfizer’s vaccine as soon as Dec. 11. Executives from Pfizer and CVS will speak to the task force next Wednesday about how the vaccine will be distributed.
People will require two doses of the vaccine in order for it to be fully effective, and there are side effects like headaches, fever, and exhaustion to consider, LaPlante said. Health officials suggest that people be prepared to take two days off of work to cope with side effects after getting the vaccine — something that may not be possible for all workers. The state must prioritize vaccinating health care workers, first responders, and the staff and residents of nursing homes before other residents, and a vaccine that’s safe for children is still months away.
Experts say at least 70 percent to 80 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to bring the pandemic under control. It could take take months before a majority of the population is vaccinated, LaPlante cautioned.
“It’s tempting to think that once the vaccine arrives COVID will be a thing of the past,” she said.