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First Alert Investigation: Is Northeast Wisconsin prepared to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine?

Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 5:54 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - The last few weeks have been filled with good news about vaccines for COVID-19, with FDA approval for the first one likely just weeks away.

The government has told state and local health officials to be ready to distribute it as soon as it’s approved.

So is Northeast Wisconsin ready to undertake the historic distribution? And how will it get to people in rural areas where ultra-cold storage doesn’t often exist?

We put those questions to health experts who say this is taking them into uncharted territory.

“The logistics are going to be far more complex than anything we’ve managed in the past,” says Laura Alar, Bellin Health Systems Director of Pharmacy.

“This COVID-19 vaccination planning and dissemination is more complicated than we ever imagined,” says Wisconsin DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.

“I think one thing in health care that we’ve learned in COVID is plan, plan, plan,” says Prevea President and CEO Dr. Ashok Rai.

And right now, that means daily planning sessions for seemingly endless distribution scenarios.

If COVID has taught health care anything, it’s to plan for everything, but that’s a challenge when they don’t know how much -- or how little -- of the vaccine they’ll even receive.

“So that’s kind of the multimillion dollar question. The government is in charge of distribution, and we don’t know how that’s going to go,” says Dr. Rai.

We asked Alar, “When will you find out how much you’re going to get? When it shows up?”

“Basically,” says Alar. “The unknown is how many doses. If we get 100,000 doses, the plan is going to be much different than if we get 200 doses.”

Local providers also don’t pick which vaccine they’ll receive.

A computer helps do that.

“There’s a lot of math or permutations and combinations that are going to determine the logistics of the distribution,” says Dr. Rai.

He says Prevea, like other providers preparing to administer vaccinations, submitted a lengthy list of data to the state’s Vaccinator Program.

“We have to say what sites have the ability to super chill, what sites may need dry ice, what sites it’s probably not practical no matter what,” said Dr. Rai. “And all that’s been submitted, so then they take all of that data from all the different responses throughout the state and the country. It gets fed into their supercomputer, and then it distributes based on how many doses you need.”

One of the biggest factors in who gets what lies in the COVID cold chain -- who has the ability to store the vaccines that require almost unheard of temperatures?

The Pfizer vaccine needs ultra-cold storage at around -80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bellin Pharmacy Director Laura Alar tells us there are a lot of questions about storing vaccines shipped in what she describes as packaging the size of pizza boxes.

“That box is supposed to hold 975 doses. It depends on what the storage considerations are if we can stack the boxes,” she says. “They can be open two times in a 24-hour period for, at most, one minute a time to maintain that cold storage environment, so it will be a challenge.”

Wisconsin DHS officials tell Action 2 News it’s not encouraging providers to go buy ultra-cold storage freezers, though doctors tell us some are doing that.

Health officials hope long-term ultra cold storage won’t be an issue, at least initially, if the doses are administered almost as quickly as they’re received.

“With a refresh of dry ice, it can stay up to 15 days, and in the refrigerator, it needs to be used within 120 hours,” says Dr. Stephanie Schauer, Division of Public Health Immunization Program Manager.

So what about getting it safely and quickly to all those people who live in rural areas or small communities?

We found specific guidelines in Wisconsin’s COVID Vaccination Action Plan, requiring digital data loggers and temperature monitors that can alarm if the vaccine gets too warm.

Prevea, for example, says its plan includes large central storage sites and the use of its courier team to then transport the vaccine to clinics.

The other big concern is security of the coveted vaccine.

“We are going to keep those vaccines in a secured area with locking access,” says Alar.

As we’ve reported, local health officials and CDC guidelines thus far indicate the first vaccines will go to health care workers dealing with patients, then essential workers, people in long-term care facilities, the elderly and those at high risk.

Doctors are optimistic the general public could start receiving vaccines by late winter or early spring, and hope by then other leading vaccines, like ones from Moderna and AstraZeneca that don’t require extreme cold temperatures, will be prime for distribution in rural Wisconsin.

“We’re going to start small, and we can expand at our discretion if the quantities are large,” adds Alar.

“We’re good to go. We just need the vaccine, and then the ability to communicate to people when it’s time for you to come in,” says Dr. Rai.

So much changes with COVID and vaccines daily that providers say they are ready to adapt on a moment’s notice, but there is some other good news.

The state’s COVID Vaccine Plan estimates 80 percent of the state’s population, not including children, could be vaccinated within 12 weeks once the vaccine is widely available.

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