Maine health officials are concerned they’ll need more federal funding to rapidly and equitably distribute the two most promising coronavirus vaccine candidates when they become available.
The developers of both vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, have recently announced preliminary results from clinical trials that have shown them to be at least 90 percent effective, putting the companies on track to seek emergency authorization for their use in the coming weeks — although more research and experience are still needed to demonstrate the vaccines’ true effectiveness.
If they do receive emergency authorization, the vaccines would only be available in limited doses initially, according to the Associated Press. Adding to the distribution challenges, both would require people to get two separate shots several weeks apart and would need to be kept at freezing temperatures. The Pfizer one would be a particular logistical challenge, since it must be stored in special ultra-cold freezers at around minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
Maine has already put together its initial plan for distributing the vaccines, with the highest priority going to health care workers in high-risk settings, essential workers and people in congregate living settings such as nursing homes.
As the vaccines become more widely available, the plan calls for offering them to additional groups, including people with underlying health conditions, school staff and people in jails and prisons. After that, it would try to extend the vaccines to everyone in the state. Throughout the rollout, the state has pledged to reach groups disproportionately affected by the virus, including racial and ethnic minorities and the elderly.
Based on federal guidance, Maine would likely target the Pfizer vaccine to health care workers and first responders, since it would rely on the ultra-cold freezers that only five hospitals currently have, according to Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It hopes the Moderna vaccine also becomes available soon since it can be stored in a regular household freezer and, thus, would be much easier to distribute to more remote areas such as Washington County.
But just how quickly Maine can roll out the vaccines and how easily it can get the vaccines to those rural areas will depend on how much assistance it eventually receives from the federal government.
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Like all states, Maine is now racing to lay the groundwork for the vaccines with only limited federal assistance, according to the New York Times. The feds have provided $200 million to states and communities for the effort, with another $140 million promised in December, but local officials have said that’s billions short of what they’ll need.
So far, Maine has received roughly $800,000 from the federal government to help administer the vaccines, but it needs more federal funding if it hopes to distribute them as efficiently as possible, Shah said.
That funding is needed for the health care providers administering the vaccines, the information technology systems needed to track who has been vaccinated and the logistics of distributing the shots. The total price tag for the state’s efforts will ultimately hinge on how many of its vaccines require the same treatment as the Pfizer one, according to Shah.
In addition to hospitals, the state has some of its own ultra-cold storage space and has ordered two additional freezers that it hopes will arrive by the time the Pfizer vaccine is ready to be distributed. In addition, it is working with colleges and universities around the state that have ultra-cold storage space in their laboratories.
But there are additional logistics the state would need to handle.
“One of the things the team and I talked about on Friday was literally: how many pounds or tons of dry ice we would need, and then, where are we going to get the ultra-insulated gloves and goggles to protect the people that are working with the dry ice?” Shah said.
“It turns out that those ultra-cold dry ice gloves and goggles are very pricey. As they should be: they’re keeping people safe. But if the predominance of vaccines are going to require dry ice and ultra-cold storage, that’s going to take us down one pathway with respect to expenditures.”