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Iowa medical providers prepare to get coronavirus vaccine 'within weeks'

Ultracold storage requirements are a complicating factor

Medical staff take a nasopharyngeal sample for the novel coronavirus COVID-19 test at the Test Iowa site, 5755 Willow Cr
Medical staff take a nasopharyngeal sample for the novel coronavirus COVID-19 test at the Test Iowa site, 5755 Willow Creek Dr. SW, in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. The site provides protection from winter weather for medical staff and testing subjects. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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News of potential success for a COVID-19 vaccine offered some hope this past week as new cases of the novel coronavirus surged and hospitals across Iowa scrambled to care for a record number of infected patients.

Local health care providers and officials throughout the state are expecting the first doses to arrive within weeks.

Health care officials are finalizing details around distribution of doses in the Corridor as they wait for final approval from federal health regulators.

“Our goal is to get it out there so that anybody can get the vaccine and that we make it as easy as possible for people to get a vaccine — but keep in mind, it’s going to be very slow in the beginning,” said Heather Meador, Linn County Public Health clinical services supervisor, during a meeting last Wednesday with county businesses.

As of Wednesday, 1,097 providers were signed up and approved to administer doses through the Iowa Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 vaccine strategy, department spokesperson Alex Carfrae said.

There’s a total of 64 providers between Linn and Johnson counties, with 46 in Linn and 18 in Johnson. Carfrae said “nearly all” of the approved vaccine providers are associated with a health care provider.

“IDPH was pleased to hear the recent reports about the effectiveness of two of the vaccines currently under development,” Carfrae said. “While we do not have any firm dates or timelines, we expect small allocations of the vaccine to be made available before the end of the year, with much greater availability in the early weeks of 2021.”

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Area health care officials said the federal government would shoulder the cost of administering the vaccine.

However, managing the storage requirements for the two-dose vaccines may be a complicating factor for some parts of the state.

Limited capacity for ultra cold storage

Earlier this month, two manufacturers developing a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States announced that preliminary results showed their vaccines were strongly effective and able to reduce the risk of an infection by the novel coronavirus by more than 90 percent.

Drugmaker Moderna announced earlier this week that its vaccine reduced the risk of infection of the novel coronavirus by 94.5 percent.

On Wednesday, U.S. manufacturer Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, announced that its vaccine is 95 percent effective. The UIHC is a participant in Pfizer’s clinical trials.

On Friday, Pfizer formally asked regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow emergency use of its vaccine before the final testing is fully complete.

The first manufactured doses of the Pfizer vaccine could be shipped out as soon as next month, according to national reports.

“We are hoping to have the first doses in-house within the next few weeks,” said Dr. Tony Myers, chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. “It will be a limited supply for essential workers.”

However, Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius when stored. Not many health care providers have that equipment.

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“That’s true throughout the state of Iowa — there aren’t that many providers that have significant capacity for ultra cold storage,” said UIHC chief pharmacy officer Michael Brownlee.

Hospitals in the Corridor have worked to expand their ultracold storage since this requirement was made known, including UIHC. Brownlee said officials have been planning for this requirement since Labor Day and have created more storage capacity within its system.

UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids also worked with its system to obtain a new freezer that has space for about 11,700 vials, or 58,500 doses, officials told The Gazette.

To help alleviate some concerns about cold requirements, Pfizer has designed its own packaging to keep doses cold with dry ice. That would allow the vaccine to be stored for a few weeks without special freezers.

The state public health agency still is conducting surveys of facilities with ultracold storage capabilities and will work to distribute doses to those sites, Carfrae said.

Carfrae noted the Moderna vaccine has less stringent storage requirements — needing to be kept at only minus 20 degrees Celsius. This vaccine is expected to be available soon after Pfizer’s.

A trickle, not flood, of availability

The challenges presented with this distribution — in addition to the time it will take to manufacture enough doses — means Iowans will see the vaccine trickle out, Meador said.

That’s why state and local public health agencies say health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff and high-risk populations will be among the priority groups who will receive the vaccine first.

Doses will be given more broadly to the public as they becomes more available, but when that will be still is unclear.

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Public officials expect it to be some time, so they are continuing to emphasize the importance of wearing masks, maintaining social distance and avoiding large gatherings to help reduce the risk of spread.

Time will tell whether the ultracold storage requirements and other logistical challenges with widely distributing a COVID-19 vaccine will have a major impact.

“There will be some challenges, but I think that the state and the counties are doing a great job with opening up these lines of communication,” said Jennifer Miller, UIHC support services assistant director. “There’s a lot of forethought and prep going into this to try and make it as smooth as possible.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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