SALT LAKE CITY — Utah state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, Gov. Gary Herbert and doctors across Utah are celebrating Pfizer's groundbreaking COVID-19 vaccine efficacy announcement as good news, but warn it doesn't change anything about the state's current dire situation with increasing cases and overcrowded hospitals.
The pharmaceutical company headquartered in New York partnered with German company BioNTech, and together they reported its experimental novel coronavirus vaccine is more than 90% effective, according to data from a clinical trial.
So, what does it mean for Utah?
Well, the announcement may be exciting, but it doesn't mean residents should stop social distancing or wearing masks anytime soon. Life isn't getting back to normal just yet.
"It's too early to celebrate too much, but we all welcome this great news," said Dr. Arlen Jarrett, chief medical officer of Steward Healthcare. "The vaccine is going to be a while before it is manufactured and proven and then distributed to all of the United States, and in the meantime, we need to do some things. Our hospitals have been feeling the strain, as the number of individuals sick with COVID has risen."
As 2,247 new COVID-19 cases and two more deaths were announced Monday, a new emergency order enacting a statewide mask mandate went into effect to combat growing case numbers and overcrowded hospitals. As part of the order, state and health officials also urged Utahns to do their part and limit casual gatherings to in-household only.
The state health department has been working on its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan for months and recently submitted a 45-page plan to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outlining who will get the vaccine first and how.
At a Monday news conference, Dunn noted it's difficult to submit a plan when a lot remains unknown, including how many doses will be provided or what the efficacy of the vaccine will be for those who get it. That's where Pfizer's announcement comes into play; it can help answer at least one of those unknowns — the efficacy.
"What's really exciting," Dunn said, "is the increasing evidence that the Pfizer vaccine will be quite effective."
The state health department will seriously consider advice and consultation from the CDC before making final recommendations for Utah's public health, according to the plan.
The state is planning on distributing the drug in three phases; first to get the vaccine will be those in the highest priority group, which will be defined by a prioritization workgroup made up of multiple UDOH and local health department employees, doctors, governor's office officials, various epidemiologists and emergency planning coordinators.
Those in the prioritization workgroup will meet weekly to decide which health care providers will receive the vaccine during the first phase and when the anticipated limited doses will be available. During the first wave, it's likely a health organization system will identify the most at-risk personnel in hospitals with the highest COVID-19 response to be vaccinated first.
As more doses become available, additional hospitals will receive the vaccine for other personnel. During additional waves of the first phase, long-term care facility residents will get vaccinated, followed by first responders, EMS personnel, and private-sector partners such as doctors' offices, pharmacies and clinics.
The second phase will begin when the vaccine is widespread and supply can meet demand. It's estimated the general public of healthy not-at-risk Utahns won't get a vaccine until about 5-6 months after the first doses roll out to critical health care workers on the frontlines.
The state is already prepping health care providers now — before the vaccine is approved and available — about the planning process, ordering and getting vaccines.
For long-term care facilities, large chain pharmacies will be involved in the planning efforts, and further information in that specific process has yet to be released by the CDC, the plan states.
Prison and county jail inmates, students and school staff, public health workers, those with underlying medical conditions, those experiencing homelessness and people with disabilities are all currently listed in the plan as critical populations along with health care workers.
Last month, a Qualtrics survey found there was distrust in a potential COVID-19 vaccine, with 40% of respondents either unsure or not planning on getting vaccinated once it becomes widely available. Of those people, 91% felt it wouldn't be safe enough and 90% said they had concerns about side effects.
However, the survey found that 81% of respondents were more likely to get vaccinated if a doctor recommended it.
The top priority is the safety of the vaccine. The CDC's current vaccine safety system is "strong and robust" and the health organization is "committed to ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines are safe," according to a recent release.
There's additional things to understand about vaccines that are developed, and it doesn't take away from what the ask is, from the governor, which is to do the things outlined with respect to staying within our households wearing masks.
–Dr. Mark Briesacher
Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive for Intermountain Healthcare said a vaccine will be beneficial in the fight against COVID-19.
"We have great news today on the development within the vaccine worlds and this becomes potentially another tool for us going forward," he said. "I am encouraged by that."
He noted, though, that it doesn't negate the plea to Utahns to do better with following health guidelines.
"There's additional things to understand about vaccines that are developed, and it doesn't take away from what the ask is, from the governor, which is to do the things outlined with respect to staying within our households wearing masks," he said.
Several potential COVID-19 vaccines are in development, with multiple clinical trials being conducted simultaneously, according to the CDC. It's too early to know which vaccines will end up being approved or authorized, but CDC officials are planning for all possibilities.
It's likely that a vaccine could be initially used under an emergency use authorization from the FDA — something Pfizer officials said the company will be seeking later this month for its vaccine candidate.
As for the logistics of the state's current distribution plan, Dunn said Monday the vaccine will need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures. As part of preparations, Dunn said officials are working to provide adequate freezers to as many health care systems as possible so it can be stored appropriately once available.
The first draft of the plan is just that — a draft. It will evolve as more information becomes available on a COVID-19 vaccine, Dunn said. While it's still in the early stages now, Herbert said it's definitely "reason to be hopeful" but not complacent.
In the interim, health officials are asking Utahns to adhere to public health guidelines.
"All of us can look for opportunities to improve," Herbert said.