COVID-19 may still be a threat within Marion County, but local public health officials and emergency managers are now preparing for the day a vaccine arrives.
On Tuesday, the County Commission heard a briefing on how the community would react when a coronavirus vaccine is available. Mark Lander, administrator of the county Health Department, and Emergency Management Director Preston Bowlin gave the presentation.
Lander noted that Gov. Ron DeSantis had submitted an immunization plan to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last month.
The document outlines a three-part approach.
During the first phase, Lander said, the amount of vaccine would be limited, so the distribution of it would focus on healthcare staffers, “essential” workers and “high risk” citizens, including those 65 or older and those with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to hospitalization or death.
During the meeting, Lander pointed out that 331 of the 351 people who have died with or from COVID-19 in Marion County were 55 or older. And the Health Department has reported that more than 90 percent of fatalities also had underlying health issues, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, among others.
Lander pointed out that once enough vaccine is available, the state during the second phase likely would set up large-scale drive-thru immunizations in large cities. Meanwhile, locally, the Health Department would establish “pods” for vaccinations, emphasizing large employers.
Once at the final phase, provided there are no shortages, the Health Department would administer the vaccine similar to how it conducts COVID-19 testing, with the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion being established as an immunization hub, said Lander. The drug would also be available for distribution at retail outlets in this stage.
Lander identified some challenges the county faces in preparing for a vaccine.
Six possible vaccines are now in the trial stage, Lander said. He described four of them as “very positive,” including one being developed by Johnson & Johnson.
On Tuesday, the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System announced that the VA hospital in Gainesville would be the site for the nation’s fourth large-scale COVID-19 vaccine trial. According to VA spokeswoman Cindy Snook, the VA was seeking volunteers to test a possible vaccine being developed by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.
While veterans may participate, the pool of potential subjects was not limited to them. The VA also sought help from its own staff as well as family and friends of veterans, Snook said. The VA wants to focus on frontline and essential workers as well as minorities, especially blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, since the coronavirus appears to affect them at greater rates than other demographic groups.
Lander said the early research suggests the vaccine must be kept between 50 degrees below zero and 86 degrees below zero. Thus, specialized refrigeration units are needed.
“You really don’t find that anywhere normally through businesses,” he said.
As evidence of that, Lander noted that such units were back-ordered by at least two months. But the county already has some in hand, as Bowlin, the emergency management director, found them.
The county has purchased seven freezers or refrigerators to store the vaccine. According to Procurement Director Susan Olsen, the units cost $52,885 in total, which was paid through the county’s share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, a $2-plus trillion coronavirus aid package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in March.
Lander also told the board that the county has a mobile refrigerated trailer to move the vaccine supply where needed.
“We feel very confident we’ll be able to do these remote sites,” he said.
Besides storing the drugs to prevent long waits or waste, Lander said the county faces a possible shortage of having sufficient healthcare personnel in helping administer the vaccine.
To draft the final vaccine plan, Bowlin told commissioners, officials are drawing on the experiences of trying to conduct mass testing for COVID as well as the county’s response to the H1N1 outbreak a few years ago.
Bowlin said a task force has been assembled to iron out other details, such as how to deploy first-responders and communications tactics. The panel will begin meeting next week.
The state Division of Emergency Management, Bowlin added, has already assured county officials that it holds sufficient personal protective equipment, syringes, alcohol, swabs and Band-aids so the vaccine can be administered in Marion County, when necessary.
Back in April, Trump launched Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership with drugmakers, to produce 300 million vaccine doses by the end of the year.
Within the past few weeks, Trump had said a vaccine might be ready by Election Day, although some administration officials had indicated next year was more realistic.
Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said research data should be available in December to determine how close the nation is to a COVID vaccine.
But Pfizer, which is conducting one of the ongoing trials, recently announced that before Thanksgiving it would seek “safety” approval to use the vaccine from the Food and Drug Administration, if the data supported that.