This image depicts a test tube with viral transport media that contained a patient’s sample to be tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Hardin County could get doses of a new COVID-19 vaccine this month, depending on the timing of approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But even when those doses arrive, they won’t be widely available, local officials warned this week.

“As we get closer to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in our county, Greenbelt Home Care reminds all residents the initial doses of vaccine will be limited and will be in very short supply,” a press release issued Wednesday by the county’s public health agency reads. “Hardin County Citizens are urged to continue to take preventative measures until they can receive the vaccine.”

On Tuesday, Hardin County Public Health Coordinator Rocky Reents said that Greenbelt Home Care/Hardin County Public Health was told by the Iowa Department of Public Health that it should expect to receive 1,000 doses of a vaccine, possibly as early as mid-December. But distribution of the doses will have to follow guidelines issued this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those guidelines prioritize the following people to receive the doses first:

  • Healthcare personnel
  • Workers in essential and critical industries
  • People at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness due to underlying medical conditions
  • People 65 years and older

Reents said the county will identify initial points of dispensing (PODs) that may include clinics, pharmacies and long term care facilities, depending on which agencies completed vaccine provider agreements earlier this year. The doses will be distributed to those places, and the people there will be in charge of dispensing them.

Hansen Family Hospital is one of the organizations that’s applied to be a point of dispensary for the vaccine. CEO Doug Morse said Wednesday that the hospital is working on a plan for how it will dispense doses of the vaccine.

Next year – possibly in the spring – when the vaccine becomes more widely available, Hardin County Public Health will likely set up an open POD – such as a drive-through location – where the public would be able to get vaccinated.

Reents said solid information about the vaccine has been slow to come by, as the CDC and Iowa Department of Public Health prepare for the rollout of a vaccine following FDA approval. 

“The most frustrating part was waiting for the CDC to identify groups, and they finally did that,” Reents said on Tuesday. “Now we’re able to move forward on that. Next we’ll try to get provider training for how to administer the vaccine. It feels like we’re always just a step behind.”

Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer (with its German partner BioNTech) have released information about their COVID-19 vaccine candidates. While the AstraZeneca vaccine is reported to be up to 90 percent effective in clinical trials, Pfizer and Moderna have reported that their vaccines are up to 95 percent effective. On Wednesday, the U.K. gave emergency authorization to Pfizer's vaccine, but none of the vaccines has received U.S. FDA approval.

Reents said there are questions about how the vaccine doses will be stored once they arrive in Hardin County. The Pfizer vaccine, in particular, requires ultra-cold storage - minus 70 degrees Celsius. Reents said that neither Greenbelt Home Care nor any of the county’s would-be vaccine points of dispensary, has a cooler capable of reaching that temperature.

Guidance from the CDC on vaccine storage implies that it may not be necessary for vaccination providers to purchase ultra-cold storage units. The agency's Vaccine Storage and Handling Toolkit advises, “vaccines requiring these storage conditions are expected to be shipped in containers that can maintain ultra-cold temperatures for an extended period.” Companies have said they plan to ship the doses in vials packed in dry ice.

All three of the vaccines require two doses, with the second administered two to three weeks after the first dose. Reents said it’s not clear how those second doses will be doled out – whether the initial shipment of 1,000 doses will be split in two so 500 people can receive both doses, or whether 1,000 people will receive a first dose and then wait for a second shipment of doses to arrive.

It’s unclear when more vaccine doses will be available – especially to the general public. Pfizer reported on Wednesday that based on current projections, it expects to be able to produce up to 50 million vaccine doses this year, and up to 1.3 billion by the end of 2021.

In the meantime - and even after the first shipments of an FDA-approved vaccine are distributed - the virus is still spreading and the public is asked to continue practices that are shown to reduce spread of COVID-19: wear a face mask when you're in public; stay home when you're ill; avoid gatherings with people who do not live in your household; wash your hands frequently; and social distance from others.

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