As COVID vaccines near federal approval, RI prepares to launch distribution plan


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine inching closer and closer to federal approval, Rhode Island health officials are gearing up for the imminent statewide distribution of the first round of doses.

The state released a draft of its vaccination distribution plan in mid-October, and has been working since then to nail down the specifics.

During a virtual briefing Wednesday, the R.I. Department of Health detailed how the state plans to distribute the vaccine, including who would get it first and where it would be administered.

Watch the full briefing below. (Story continues after video.)

The state plans to not only receive doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, but also Moderna’s, both of which are in the process of being approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Earlier this week, the FDA released its first scientific evaluation of Pfizer’s vaccine which confirmed it offers strong protection against the virus. The FDA is slated to analyze Moderna’s vaccine later this month, though the pharmaceutical company recently reported its vaccine appears to be 94.5% effective.

Dr. Phillip Chan, RIDOH’s consultant medical director, called the efficacy rates of both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines reassuring, adding that this is “the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”

“I still think we have a little ways to go, but this is a significant step towards ending the pandemic,” he said.

Chan said while the state’s distribution plan can’t be finalized until the vaccine is federally approved, they will work quickly to get the doses out once one is authorized for emergency use.

“This is a multi-level process,” Chan explained. “We want to really vet this vaccine, we want to vet it internally within our state, and we’re going to do so and make sure that it is safe for all Rhode Islanders.”

The state anticipates that, once Pfizer’s vaccine is federally approved, it will initially receive nearly 10,000 first doses. If all goes according to plan, the state expects to receive an additional 10,000 first doses the following week, along with roughly 19,000 first doses of Moderna’s vaccine.

Subsequent shipments will arrive weekly and will include approximately 8,000 first doses of each vaccine. The state estimates that shipments of the vaccines’ second dose will begin arriving three weeks later.

Alysia Mihalakos, RIDOH’s chief of the Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, said the state will make the vaccines available to Rhode Islanders in phases.

Phase 1 of the state’s distribution plan will be split into two groups:

  • Group 1A, which will receive the vaccine first, includes high-risk health care workers, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities.
  • Group 1B includes those with underlying health conditions and older adults in congregate living facilities.

Phase 2 will include the following groups:

  • K-12 teachers, school staff, and child care providers
  • Critical workers in high-risk settings
  • People with moderate health conditions
  • People in homeless shelters or group homes and staff
  • Incarcerated or detained people and facility staff
  • All older adults

During Phase 3, the state will prioritize young adults, children and workers in critical industries such as grocery, retail and manufacturing.

Lastly, Phase 4 will allow those who weren’t eligible in the previous phases to receive the vaccine.

Mihalakos said the groups included in Phases 2 and 3 are subject to change based on federal guidance, but the state plans to stay “one phase ahead” of the distribution process.

There will be several avenues by which Rhode Islanders in Phase 1 can receive the vaccine:

  • Hospitals statewide will be in charge of vaccinating their staffs.
  • Through a partnership with CVS and Walgreens, vaccines will be administered to staff and residents of long-term care and assisted-living facilities.
  • The Wellness Company, a mass vaccinator that RIDOH has partnered with for decades, will be hosting clinics across the state for priority populations.
  • Five regional clinics for first responders, home health agency workers and other priority populations will also be established.

Mihalakos said distribution plans are still being developed for the remaining three phases, but those will include venues such as doctor’s offices, pharmacies and community clinics.

There are several factors that could affect how quickly the state is able to move through phases, Mihalakos said, including when the vaccines are shipped and whether the state receives the expected number of doses.

“There is always the possibility that something goes wrong in the shipping process or the production process that will slow the availability of the vaccine, and so, while we hope to watch it steadily escalate, we know we need to be prepared for things to move slower than we anticipated,” she said.

Mihalakos also acknowledged that it will take months, not weeks, to vaccinate Rhode Islanders.

“There is not enough vaccine, there’s not enough vaccinators and, unfortunately, I think there’s not enough trust just yet in the vaccine for everybody to rush out the door and get vaccinated as quickly as those of us in public health would love them to,” she said.

Mihalakos said because of this, Rhode Islanders should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing throughout the vaccination process.

It’s unclear when the state will start distributing the vaccine. While she can’t say for certain when Phase 1 will begin, Mihalakos said it could be relatively soon, since the FDA is set to debate Thursday whether the evidence from its scientific evaluation of Pfizer’s vaccine is strong enough to recommend it for emergency use.

“It could be as early as this weekend, it could be sometime in the first few days of next week, assuming the emergency authorization is issued,” she said, adding that it all depends on whether Pfizer’s vaccine is approved.

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