With emergency U.S. approval for the first COVID-19 vaccine expected soon, the focus now turns to the complex process of rolling out the vaccines in Florida.
Florida’s first shipment of vaccines is expected to include 179,400 doses, Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a video message Thursday.
Though many details of vaccine distribution in the coming months are not yet known, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Wednesday in a Facebook Live appearance that current public testing sites like Raymond James Stadium and the Lee Davis Neighborhood Services Center on 22nd Street in Tampa would probably be converted to vaccine distribution centers upon availability. But sites like that may have to wait.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could grant approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine within days, which could mean Florida will receive vaccine doses within the week, even as early as the weekend.
An advisory panel Thursday recommended that the Food and Drug Administration grant emergency use of the vaccine in the U.S., and the agency is widely expected to follow the advice of the panel. The UK and Canada have both already approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Once the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine passes emergency approval, DeSantis said the five Florida hospitals chosen to receive the vaccine first — including Tampa General Hospital — will get 97,500 doses in total from the initial shipment.
Another 60,450 doses will be sent to CVS and Walgreens for use in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, while the final 21,450 will go to the Florida Department of Health to be used by “strike teams” that will go into care facilities and administer the vaccine.
“Our top priority is residents of long-term care facilities,” DeSantis said in a video message Thursday. “They are at the greatest risk and this vaccine could have a positive impact on them, not just protecting them from COVID, but allowing them to return to a more normal life.”
DeSantis has previously said he expects Florida will receive between 1-2 million doses in the first month.
Florida’s plan to get vaccines first to frontline health care workers and vulnerable populations in long-term care facilities follows guidelines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two shots administered three weeks apart in order to achieve the 95 percent effective rate that was reached during clinical trials. It was not immediately clear whether the first batch of vaccines would be split so that half as many people could receive both doses. Either way, the initial shipment will not be enough for all of the state’s long-term care residents and health care workers.
Much remains unknown about the logistics of this historic effort to roll out a vaccination program across the U.S.
An October COVID-19 vaccination plan from Florida does not provide details on exactly how different people and groups will be prioritized for receiving vaccines or exactly how the vaccines will be distributed once they become more widely available. The state was supposed to report an updated vaccine distribution plan to the federal government earlier this month.
The draft plan from October includes a chart showing health care workers and long-term care residents and staff being the first priority, followed by first responders and other essential employees. It said that, as the vaccine becomes more widely available, county health departments will likely open mass vaccination sites, similar to what was done for COVID-19 testing, “to ensure there is equitable distribution of the vaccine.”
Castor said Tampa has long had “Point of Distribution” sites set up as part of Homeland Security measures and is confident that residents will be able to readily access vaccines.
“We’ll be able to get the vaccines out in an orderly fashion,” she said.
Castor stressed that, while people may be tired of having to wear masks and social distance, it’s important to continue to do so as case numbers in Tampa Bay and across Florida continue to rise.
“The vaccine’s here. The answer’s here. But it’s not going to be widely available for a couple of months,” Castor said.
Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health and an expert on health care policy, said the logistics of distributing vaccines on this scale are complicated.
He said it would make sense that COVID-19 testing sites like Raymond James Stadium would be repurposed for vaccinations but said that would only come after the vaccine is much more widely available — something he said wasn’t likely until after January or February.
Wolfson said issues like getting vaccines to high-risk, non-elderly community members could pose transportation and other challenges and said it will also be important to make sure systems are well-managed to ensure follow-up with people to get the second doses of vaccines.
Meanwhile, Florida is seeing an increase in coronavirus-related deaths as case numbers continue to tick upward this holiday season. In the first week of December, the state saw an average death toll of about 100 per day. That’s double the rate of deaths from a month ago.
Florida recently surpassed 1 million known cases of the coronavirus, and will likely surpass 20,000 deaths in a matter of days.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Charlie Frago and Megan Reeves contributed to this report.
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