State health leaders outline plan to distribute COVID-19 vaccine once available

HARRISBURG, Pa. — State health leaders cautioned that any COVID-19 vaccine that becomes available won’t be an immediate cure or end to the pandemic while outlining Pennsylvania’s distribution plan.

“We’ll be working to distribute the vaccine in three phases,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said.

The first phase would be for what are deemed “critical populations” which includes health care workers, EMS, first responders, people in critical sectors of the economy, people aged 65 years or older and people living in group care settings. The second phase would be expanded to include people with high-risk health conditions and vulnerable populations. The third phase would be for the entire population. Levine said for rural hospitals or facilities that can’t keep and store the virus, the state may have to look at a “hub-and-spoke” style for distribution.

Levine said there are currently six drug manufacturers in trials with vaccines. She said the two most promising right now are the trials with Pfizer and Moderna, which are both in the final phase. Once phase three trials are complete, the companies can request an Emergency Use Authorization through the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA will review the vaccines and can then grant the EUA. That will get reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before any vaccines can be sent out to pharmacies or doctors’ offices.

“These two vaccines are made from messenger-RNA or genetic material,” Levine said.

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Messenger-RNA reads the genetic code from DNA and translates it to other parts of human cells that make proteins. Levine said the good news with the two vaccines currently in phase three trials is that both have reportedly very high effectiveness against COVID-19. She said if the federal approval process continues on track, a vaccine could be available within the next month, but it’s not clear how quickly supply could meet demand.

Levine said the state is reporting roughly 65,000 coronavirus tests per day now. She said there is significant hospital capacity in southwest Pennsylvania and the system is not being “significantly challenged” right now.

Monoclonal antibodies, a new treatment for coronavirus, will begin to be distributed to hospitals around the state this week. This is an IV infusion and takes several hours to administer. Monoclonal antibodies are man-made proteins that act like human antibodies in a person’s immune system.

“I anticipate we’ll be wearing masks well into 2021,” Levine said.

CLICK HERE to read the state’s entire COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan