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Central Coast counties await state, federal guidance on COVID-19 vaccine distribution

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Nine pharmaceutical companies are currently doing human clinical trials for their COVID-19 vaccines, including Pfizer and Moderna.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve a vaccine. However, during a virtual coronavirus briefing on Nov. 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that California will receive a specific allocation of the vaccine. He said California is anticipating getting approximately 327,000 doses of a vaccine for COVID-19 in mid-December that will most likely come from Pfizer.

COVER DESIGN BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Cover Design By Alex Zuniga

Pfizer and Moderna have submitted data from their clinical trials to the FDA to review, and the agency is set to consider Pfizer's vaccine at a Dec. 10 meeting. Moderna's will be discussed a week later. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), when a vaccine is authorized, its anticipated supply will be limited.

The challenge, Newsom said, is that the vaccine must be stored at very low temperatures. Those who receive the first dose require a second one that could be given in the following three weeks.

San Luis Obispo County's Public Health Department is trying to anticipate the local needs for distributing a vaccine, but officials said that plans hinge on further instructions and guidance from the federal and state governments.

Whitney Szentesi, the lead public information officer for the health department, told New Times that the department has been preparing for mass vaccination events for years and managed a successful drive-through flu shot clinic in October to serve as a drill and help it prepare for an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

In Santa Barbara County, Public Information Officer Jackie Ruiz said its Public Health Department is working closely with the California Department of Public Health and formed a Partner COVID Vaccination Workgroup to prepare health care partners to administer a vaccine once it's available.

"It is anticipated that there will be a limited amount of vaccine initially, and this will be prioritized in tiers, with potentially the first for high-risk health care workers, including hospital, skilled nursing and assisted living workers, and first responders, and the next for individuals at highest risk for developing severe illness, such as residents of skilled nursing and assisted living facilities," Ruiz said.

It's a potential prioritization list, because Santa Barbara County, like San Luis Obispo, is awaiting guidance on finalized prioritization categories from the CDC and state Department of Public Health.

In an effort to distribute the future vaccine in a fair, ethical, and transparent way, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine gave input to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will make recommendations to the CDC director once a vaccine is approved for use. The advisory committee is made up of scientists and public health experts who review and create recommendations for all vaccines.

On Dec. 1, the advisory committee approved a recommendation that when a COVID-19 vaccine is authorized by the FDA, it should be given to both health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities. The CDC website states that the recommendation was adopted by the CDC director.

"We are currently working with health care facilities and first responder agencies to get an accurate number of at-risk staff, and residents within facilities, to inform our planning process," Ruiz said,

TIERED SYSTEM San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties gear up for future COVID-19 vaccination distribution plans, but health officials are waiting for federal and state guidelines. - FILE IMAGE
  • File Image
  • TIERED SYSTEM San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties gear up for future COVID-19 vaccination distribution plans, but health officials are waiting for federal and state guidelines.

Santa Barbara County hopes to carry out the vaccination by using a phased approach, so it can help set expectations for the community about when they'll have an opportunity to be vaccinated.

"This rollout will intentionally focus on those most at-risk for being in contact with the virus first," Ruiz said.

Local hospitals, such as those owned by Dignity Health, expect that priority will be given to health care workers involved directly with patient care and those most vulnerable to the virus.

Spokesperson Sara San Juan said that Dignity plans to provide the COVID-19 vaccine at its hospital locations as well as its Dignity Health Urgent Care centers.

"While we are encouraged by the news about the progress of vaccine development, we must remain vigilant and follow CDC guidelines—including wearing a mask and social distancing—to stop the spread of COVID-19," she said.

Before administering the vaccine, San Juan said, Dignity has assembled a team of infectious disease and immunology experts to review the new vaccine applications to evaluate their safety and efficiency.

"At this time, employees will be encouraged but not required to receive the vaccine. Local, state, and federal agencies may require the vaccination for some health care workers," she said.

Aside from the FDA, California established a Scientific Safety Review Workgroup to closely monitor all available information about the potential COVID-19 vaccines, including the vaccine trials, the FDA review process, and any independent evaluations.

SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said she wants people to know that a safe and effective vaccine is one of the most important interventions to end the COVID-19 pandemic, and local health officials are committed to distributing a safe vaccine when it is available. Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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