RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – With two vaccine candidates now seeking federal approval, health officials say distribution in Virginia could start by the middle of December.
On Monday, Moderna became the second vaccine maker to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for regulatory clearance after a clinical trail found their immunization was 94 percent effective at preventing COVID-19. Pfizer was the first to request an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).
If either candidate is approved, it would give them the greenlight to ramp up production for a widespread vaccination campaign.
The Virginia Department of Health said 70,000 doses are expected initially–a share that is based on the state’s population size rather than relative need. State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake told lawmakers in a virtual briefing on Monday that Virginia will get less than 3 percent of the first batch because of this federal criteria.
Peake said the state is still waiting for a CDC advisory group to release recommendations on who should be prioritized first. She said healthcare workers are likely to be at the top of the list, followed by residents at long-term care facilities and others with high-risk health conditions.
“Early on, there likely wouldn’t be enough for all healthcare workers so that will need to be broken down into subgroups and we’re still working with the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA) to determine that,” Peake said. “The level to which it’s broken down is going to depend on how much vaccine we have and we don’t know that yet.”
Right now, Peake said officials are focused on getting those first doses out fast by pre-positioning some ahead of FDA approval. She said the state has identified 16 facilities and health systems that can store the Pfizer vaccine in ultra-cold conditions–something Moderna’s immunization doesn’t require.
During Monday’s hearing, multiple members of the House Health Welfare and Institutions Committee questioned Peake about the possibility of a vaccine mandate.
“My understanding is that is not something that is being considered at this time,” Peake responded.
Peake was also asked about a possible requirement for public schools. She said this has yet to be deliberated because the vaccines that are currently up for approval still haven’t been studied in children. She said that’s typical for this stage of development.
“Those studies still have to be done before the vaccine would be recommendation for children so that’s one reason why we haven’t started that planning yet around school vaccinations,” Peake said.
In an interview with 8News on Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam tried to reassure Virginians who’re concerned about possible side effects.
“One of the issues that we know is going to be present as we move forward is trust,” Northam said. “We want to make sure we work with local leaders, our faith leaders and talk about how this vaccination is safe and effective.”
Peake said it’s too soon to say when herd immunity could be reached in the commonwealth but ramping up vaccine production is expected to take several months.
Northam hopes the general public will have the opportunity to be vaccinated by the summer of 2021.
“My message to Virginians is that there is hope for all of us, there is light at the end of the tunnel but there is still going to be a couple of months where we will have to remain vigilant and follow the guidelines,” Northam said.
Northam announced $22 million in federal CARES Act funding to support mass vaccination planning through 2020 but it’s still unclear how the state will fund the rest of what’s expected to be a $120 million effort overall.
In an email to 8News, Virginia Department of Health Public Relations Coordinator Tammie Smith said they’re expecting Congress to allocate additional funding in its next relief package but Virginia is prepared to use state resources if all else fails.
In the special session, the General Assembly passed a revised budget that directs the Virginia Department of Health to make a plan for the equitable distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes available. The first report on that plan’s progress is due to the General Assembly on Tuesday.