Out of the limelight of the global race to develop COVID-19 vaccines, public health officials in Nevada have been grappling with their own challenge: how to prepare to immunize residents across the state during a pandemic.
“This task is monumental and will represent the greatest public health effort of our generation,” said Shannon Bennett, immunization program manager for the state’s Division of Public and Behavioral Health. Her remarks came during a Monday afternoon news conference with state officials including Gov. Steve Sisolak.
Following the news conference, the state made public its draft COVID-19 vaccination playbook, which it submitted 10 days ago to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for approval.
The 97-page playbook describes a phased delivery based on the expectation that initial doses will be very limited. Among those first in line to receive the vaccine will be people administering it to others, along with “health care personnel likely to be exposed to or treat people with COVID-19.”
Other priority populations include “people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, people 65 years and older, and other essential workers who keep Nevada’s infrastructure operating,” including law enforcement and public health officials.
Those not expected to receive a vaccine early on include children. Current clinical trials do not include children or pregnant women, and Bennett did not expect vaccine distribution for these groups before trials are expanded to include them.
State officials stressed that there is not yet an approved vaccine or an exact timetable for when a vaccine might be available. With several vaccines in late-stage clinical trials, the earliest projection for when a vaccine might be available is sometime in November, and only if the Food and Drug Administration permits its emergency use.
“The state will be ready when the time comes,” said Sisolak, noting that it has been preparing for months to deliver and administer a vaccine.
The planning effort has been aided by an existing framework for administering vaccines, state officials said.
“It is important to know that working with immunizing providers, distributing vaccine and tracking doses are not new” to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said Candice McDaniel, chief of the Bureau of Child, Family and Community Wellness. “We have an established system in place and a staff who work on these issues everyday,” she said, adding they had reviewed lessons learned during the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009.
The state does anticipate new challenges, such as adhering to the the ultra-cold storage and handling requirements necessary for some of the vaccines, providing the needed two doses of vaccine to each recipient, and administering a vaccine during an ongoing pandemic, Bennett said.
Officials offered their assurances that when a vaccine is made available in the state, it will be safe, despite the rapid speed at which vaccines are being developed and tested under Operation Warp Speed, a federal government program aimed at delivering the first doses of a safe and effective vaccine by January.
“If the vaccine is not deemed safe and effective by the FDA, then it will not be released for use,” Bennett said, offering assurances that vaccines are reviewed by three national independent review boards.
“We are committed to equitable distribution of a safe vaccine following directives based on science,” she said.