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Area preps for vaccine rollout

Agencies working together to plan for large-scale delivery

The international effort to create a COVID-19 vaccine has moved with unprecedented speed, but it’s “extremely optimistic to imagine” that a vaccine will be available to administer by Nov. 1, the date by which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised the states to be ready to distribute, the chief innovation officer of UPMC said at a news conference this week.

It will be good to be ready, because a vaccine “is not going to work unless people (can) take it,” said Derek Angus. But it’s imperative that the trials ensure that any vaccine will be safe and effective, Angus said.

Clinical trials are just beginning.

The state Department of Health has been in discussion with federal agencies and hospital systems trying to anticipate the logistics of distributing and administering a vaccine under various contingencies — including how many doses will be available and when, whether the doses will need to be frozen or chilled during transit and whether recipients will need more than one dose.

“Many different questions,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine acknowledged at another press conference this week. “Nothing simple.”

The expectation is that the vaccine will be safe and effective, said Dr. Levine, who declined to speculate what might happen if her department isn’t comfortable about those characteristics.

UPMC was more definitive.

“We won’t use something that isn’t protective from infection and keeps you safe,” said Donald Yealy, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine.

Everyone wants a vaccine, Levine said. “It will be critically important.”

But Yealy said that it won’t suddenly bring an end to the pandemic.

“I hope for (vaccines) to be part of the solution,” Yealy said, calling them a potentially valuable tool. “(But) I don’t think they will be the complete solution.”

That is because not everyone “mounts a good response to vaccination,” and some people will simply decline to take it, he said.

At this point, it’s unknown whether protection will be “100 percent,” as for polio, after a proper course of immunizations, or “more like the flu vaccine,” where recipients are only “pretty much protected,” at least from severe illness, Levine said.

The CDC has been presenting the DoH will alternative scenarios, Levine said.

Temperature control for the doses and how the department and the pharmaceutical and medical community might cooperate in vaccine distribution are major logistical issues, Levine said.

“We’re working on it right now, like all the states,” she said.

Public education will be key to ensure that enough people take the vaccine to achieve “herd immunity” — although the necessary percentage is still unknown, she said.

That education will largely take the form of reassurance about safety, she indicated.

“We’re going to call on you,” she told reporters at the news conference. “To help us get the word out.”

UPMC is participating in the Moderna vaccine trial and hopes to enroll patients, Yealy said.

The success of such enrollment will help determine how quickly the answers will come, Angus said.

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