Senior officials are confident in the distribution plan for an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, saying there is "light at the end of the tunnel" in a press briefing Wednesday.
"[Distribution] is a large task, but it's a task that we are up for," said General Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed. "We're going to take a whole of America approach. That's why we're going to be able to do this."
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Because of the manufacturing assistance provided by Operation Warp Speed, there will be roughly 40 million doses of these two vaccines available for distribution by December, pending approval, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
For the past six months, the federal government, OWS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the 64 state, local and territorial public health jurisdictions have been working on creating a plan for vaccine distribution.
The four main elements of the plan include allocation, distribution, administration and ongoing monitoring and data work, according to Azar.
"We've led much of the groundwork for these efforts and covered the major costs," Azar said. "We've paid for the vaccines, we've worked to ensure that administration costs will be covered by private insurers and the federal government through Medicare, Medicaid and our program to cover COVID-19 costs for the uninsured. So no American will face an out-of-pocket cost for getting a COVID-19 vaccine."
WHAT'S THE IMPACT? VACCINE DISTRIBUTION
Delivery of the vaccine will begin within 24 hours of the Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization, according to Perna.
"Only after the science has determined and approved it accordingly, then we are poised and ready to begin distribution," he said.
Distribution will be based on the availability of the vaccine in proportion to the population of the jurisdiction and will be allocated based on CDC recommendations for high-risk populations.
Through shipping partnerships with McKesson and Pfizer, the vaccines will then be sent directly to the locations distinguished in each jurisdiction's approved vaccination plan.
"We've been working closely with those jurisdictions as they draw up their plans for where vaccines need to be shipped and how it will be administered, which they've already submitted to CDC for review and have received feedback on," Azar said.
Administration of the vaccine will be allowed through several pathways. Enrolled providers will be available for direct distribution of the vaccine for administration, as will 19 pharmacy chains which have partnered with the HHS for consumer access to a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.
"The vast majority of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy," Azar said. "So vaccination in pharmacies is a huge piece of ensuring easy access to vaccines once they're authorized or approved and recommended for the general public."
Following the initial distribution of the stockpiled vaccines, OWS will begin a "weekly cadence of delivery of vaccines," according to Perna. This means that as manufacturing of the authorized vaccine continues, so will distribution to each jurisdiction.
"The ultimate goal here is to make getting a COVID-19 vaccine as convenient as getting a flu shot," Azar said.
Future distribution will be assisted with ongoing data-monitoring of who got a vaccine, when they got it and where.
"Our ability to track the uptake – the actual administration of the shot in an arm – is going to be essential to us making sure we deliver vaccines on a continuous basis," Perna said.
THE LARGER TREND
Despite the confidence in vaccine distribution, officials reminded the public that now is not the time to let up on health safety measures.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase across the nation, and public health experts warn that the Thanksgiving holiday and cold winter months could create even more illness.
And yet, there is still little cooperation between the Trump administration and President-elect Joe Biden's transition team, even as provider groups call for information sharing.
ON THE RECORD
"There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we need people to get there," Azar said. "And the way people are going to get there is by practicing good individual behaviors of washing your hands, watching your distance, wearing your face coverings when you can't watch your distance, and avoid settings – especially right now as it's getting colder – indoor settings like crowded indoor restaurants, crowded indoor bars or home-based settings indoors where you're getting together with family, friends and neighbors and not watching your distance and wearing your face coverings. Letting your guard down – you put yourself at risk."
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