County health departments preparing for eventual vaccine distribution

Officials want COVID-19 vaccines to be ready by Nov. 1, but doses are not expected until 2021.

While widespread distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine isn’t expected until 2021, county health departments already are planning and laying logistical groundwork for when it does become available.

One new confirmed case of COVID-19 was added in Clallam County on Wednesday, while Jefferson County held steady with no new cases for 12 consecutive days.

The newest case in Clallam County is a household contact of another confirmed case and was already in quarantine, said Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer.

Clallam County has had a total of 237 confirmed cases since March, with nine active infections and one death, according to Clallam County Public Health data.

Jefferson County has had a total of 71 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since March, with one active infection and no deaths, according to Jefferson County Public Health data.

Johnson & Johnson announced the launch of its multi-country Phase 3 trials of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate by its Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies on Wednesday, becoming the fourth vaccine to enter Phase 3 trials in the nation.

The large-scale trial will enroll up to 60,000 volunteers, and the company anticipates the first batches of the vaccine to start to be distributed in early 2021, according to its press release.

While it is unknown which vaccine will become available first and exactly when, county health departments have been instructed to prepare for possible distribution as early as Nov. 1. However, both Unthank and Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said the earliest distribution won’t likely be until the end of the year or early 2021.

“I think the chance of widespread distribution by Nov. 1 is nearly non-existent,” Unthank said. “What is possible is, towards the end of the year, we could have a small amount of vaccine that we would be delivering to particularly high-risk folks who are at risk of exposure.”

Locke said: “We can do the preparation that we need to do by then, but they’re not even going to know what the priorities are because they’re not going to know the effectiveness in different age groups.

“It’s hard to believe that the Nov. 1 (date) doesn’t have something to do with the election on Nov. 3, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because it’s not going to happen, and it takes months to prepare for these things,” he said.

“We have no objection to starting now. We want to be prepared. We want things to go as smoothly as possible.”

Some of the most likely candidates for the first doses of vaccine are front-line health care workers and workers/residents of long-term care facilities, Unthank said.

One of the first steps of the preparation is coordinating with local hospitals, pharmacies and public health departments which would be receiving the vaccines, Unthank said.

“It sounds like the plans from the federal government is to distribute the vaccine directly to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and also to the public health departments,” Unthank said. “So there are a lot of people that need to be on the same page with the vaccine distribution.”

Other preparations include basic logistics, such as planning how to ship large quantities of vaccines that have to be refrigerated, Unthank said.

Another factor that health officials are keeping in mind is that none of the four U.S. vaccines have been tested in children yet, so when they first become available, they will be licensed only for adult use, with eventual clearance for children starting in mid- to late-2021, Locke said.

Once the vaccine does start to become available, it won’t end the pandemic immediately, Locke said.

“A vaccine doesn’t suddenly make the pandemic go away,” Locke said. “But, it’s a really important tool.

“If we use it well, we can save a lot of lives, and we can bring the pandemic to an end eventually — no one knows when — and get back on track economically, socially and all of those things. But even that is going to be incredibly complicated.”