A change in the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan is expected to double doses available for Oklahomans, Oklahoma Deputy Commissioner of Health Keith Reed said Wednesday.
Federal officials announced Tuesday they would no longer be holding back second doses of the vaccine; instead, opting to fully distribute available vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna to states that, in turn, distribute them to their residents.
Reed confirmed assumptions that would essentially double the amount of vaccine Oklahoma would receive each week. He said Oklahoma is slated to receive almost 48,500 doses of vaccine next week, as specified by Operation Warp Speed. If that number held firm the following week, that would mean almost 97,000 doses available if federal officials begin distributing all dosages without holding secondary doses that week. The vaccines being used in the U.S. require two doses to convey immunity: Pfizer’s second dose is given 21 days after the first; Moderna, 28 days.
More vaccine allocated to the state as a whole would mean more vaccine for counties.
Brandie Combs, regional director of the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Region 5, said distributions of vaccine to the 10 counties in the southwest region — which includes Comanche County — have varied greatly in the early weeks of the vaccination program. While the region received just under 10,000 doss the first week, only 2,000 doses were available this week. Combs said availability depends on how much vaccine Oklahoma as a whole is issued by federal officials.
Reed said the federal government’s decision to increase available vaccine doses by shipping both first and second doses to states is a definite departure “from the procedure that we were aware of yesterday,” and state officials still are weighing what that means.
“A large supply is coming very soon,” he said, adding while state officials don’t know exactly when that will happen, they do know it will change how Oklahoma distributes its allocations.
Among other things, it will renew Oklahoma’s commitment to its “burn rate,” or the rate at which the state gets vaccines out of frozen storage and into the arms of residents. While that has been the goal of Oklahoma’s vaccination program since its beginning, the burn rate data becomes more important because it is the measure federal officials will use to determine how Oklahoma’s allocation of vaccine is increased.
“There is no time to waste,” Reed said. “Vaccines will be available at a level that it has not before.”
And, that means the Oklahoma State Department of Health will begin relying on pandemic partners, or points of contact beyond the mass facilities already established to distribute vaccine. Those smaller sites haven’t been necessary because of the limited amount of vaccine available, Reed said, adding that while more vaccine will be available for distribution, it still is difficult to predict how that supply will impact Oklahoma’s rates.
“They will continue to make adjustments in our shipment, based on our ability to vaccinate,” he said, adding while he can’t say there will be enough vaccine for everyone who wants it, his department will continue its commitment to get vaccines in arms as quickly as possible.
Reed said he and others still want some information before making some decisions, including concerns by some counties to hold back some vaccine for second doses. Reed isn’t certain.
“That requires a little bit of faith in the program,” he said, of federal assurances states will be supplied with sufficient vaccine for second doses.
He’s also asking residents for a little bit of flexibility in the 21- and 28-day times between first and second dosages, explaining while the goal is to meet those timeframes, longer periods between dosages simply means it will be a little longer before the patient acquires full protection.
“It’s not ideal, not a perfect situation, but not much in this response is ideal,” Reed said.
Oklahoma’s 211 information system: Reed said there had been some confusion after operators of the 211 system said they were not an option for Oklahomans who need answers on the COVID-19 vaccine. Reed said the state health department designated 35 to 40 of its staff to act as a subsection of 211 and residents who call the statewide helpline to ask about COVID-19, vaccines or the registration portal are transferred to this group. That group will provide assistance such as walking residents through the portal process, or providing directions to those who cannot access it. Those 211 helpers cannot make appointments for residents, but will provide directions to those who can.
Scams: Reed said state officials are receiving reports of individuals who may try to take advantage of residents by offering help (for a fee) with appointments or navigating the state’s portal. “We did not authorize anybody to do that,” Reed said, adding that there is no charge to access the portal and that vaccines are available at no charge, although some sites may be collecting insurance information to cover administrative costs.
Waste: Reed said there have been only scattered incidents of vaccine waste, most associated with the same issues any widespread vaccine program would have: needles broken or separated from the container, or leaks. “There are no problems with vaccine that is expiring,” Reed said, explaining the goal is distributing doses as quickly as possible and that is happening. “There is no vaccine sitting on a shelf, sitting for any significant amount of time.” Reed said there was a question about 40 doses at a location in the Panhandle because they had been stored at an inadequate temperature, but Moderna said the temperature still was within safety levels.