SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash — Final emergency federal approval of pharmaceutical company Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine is expected by Dec. 10 and Washington state health officials plan to get that medicine to people immediately.
The drug is already being mass-produced, stockpiled and prepared for shipment.
"It will be shipped within 12 hours and we should be receiving it in the states within 24 hours," said Skagit County Health Officer Dr. Howard Leibrand.
The first people to get the vaccine will be frontline health care workers, the elderly and those working in long-term care facilities.
Getting the vaccine to those people, however, will be complicated.
The Pfizer vaccine must be stored in special freezers at 94 degrees below zero and used within 15 days of opening.
"I think, logistically, it's probably the most complicated, complex and important thing we've done as a public health system," said Leibrand. "It's going to be a heavy lift, but it's doable. We will be vaccinating people in Washington before the end of the year."
Pfizer is not the only company that is seeking emergency approval of a coronavirus vaccine next month. Moderna is also seeking approval for its separately developed vaccine.
The two most promising vaccines involve two doses given three to four weeks apart. They'll be dispensed by state-approved hospitals, clinics and pharmacies. But once the vaccine is available, it will take time to get people immunized.
"Let's say you're giving 1,000 shots a day, it's going to take over six months to vaccinate a county the size of Skagit," explained Leibrand. "I expect to see lines."
State officials said, so far, six unnamed locations have been approved to administer the vaccine.
Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett is one of at least 600 facilities that have applied for permission to distribute the drug.
Whichever vaccine is authorized first will have limited quantities, initially.
A Providence spokesman said, "We don’t know how much vaccine we will receive to start, but we are working with public health authorities to make those assessments. We know that in line with the CDC’s guidance, the vaccine will be made available in waves, first for certain healthcare personnel, followed by others. Because supply will be constrained, we will prioritize these caregivers based on their work location and role."
The federal government expects to have 300 million doses of the drug on the market by Feb 1.
"I don't anticipate any problems with the safety of this vaccine," said Leibrand. "But with any medication, you give to this huge number of people there are going be minor side effects associated with that. There certainly is no indication that severe side effects are associated with either of these two vaccines."