Baker: First COVID-19 vaccines expected this month

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In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

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BOSTON (SHNS) – COVID-19 vaccines could begin arriving in Massachusetts this month, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday, but it will be months before members of the general public have access to immunizations, based on plans the federal government and Massachusetts are finalizing this week to prioritize limited early supplies.

The Trump administration told governors on Monday to expect the first shipments of Pfizer vaccine to begin arriving by mid-December, assuming it receives the necessary emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, Baker said.

The vaccine developed by Cambridge-based Moderna would be available “shortly after that,” added Baker, who also said he did not think his administration would consider mandating vaccinations.

The head of the FDA Stephen Hahn was called to the White House Tuesday morning for a meeting on the Pfizer approval process, and the agency has a hearing scheduled Dec. 17 to discuss the Moderna application.

The limited supply of early doses, however, will likely be used first for frontline health care workers, adults over 65 or with underlying health conditions and other essential workers. The state is preparing to submit its final plan for vaccine acceptance and distribution to the Centers for Disease Control on Friday.

“The focus is going to be on the people we are all the most worried about, right, either because of what they do for work or because of their age or because of their physical condition,” Baker said.

The governor said it probably won’t be until the spring that the general population begins to have access to a vaccine, at which point others being developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson could also be available.

“It would probably be Q2 before just Joe Q or Jane Q Citizen would have access to a vaccine,” Baker said.

While the impending availability of a vaccine means there’s “light at the end of the tunnel,” Baker also cautioned against thinking that FDA approval will mean that life can return to normal for the Christmas season.

The Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines require two doses, which must be administered three to four weeks apart.

“The thing to remember here is, even as the feds get into the business of following through on the distribution program that’s attached to this, it’s going to take awhile before people would literally start finishing the vaccine process itself and start to generate antibodies,” Baker said.

The vaccines are designed for adults over the age of 18, Baker noted, and he does not envision a scenario where the state would mandate COVID-19 vaccination as it has for public school students with the flu vaccine.

“We can’t and I don’t think we would mandate in this particular case,” Baker said.

Johnson & Johnson is testing one vaccine candidate that requires only a single dose and can be stored at refrigerator temperature, instead of the extreme negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit required of the Pfizer vaccine.

While Baker did not discuss vaccine storage, Worcester Medical Director Dr. Michael Hirsh said Monday that the state had purchased a “large number of sub-zero, really sub-zero, freezers.”

“I know CVS and Walgreens have purchased them as well. There are going to be specialized, portable … it’s like an Igloo but it would be capable of keeping something cool like that for a long time,” Hirsh said on a post-Thanksgiving episode of Talk of the Commonwealth.

The federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices planned to vote Tuesday at an emergency meeting on its guidelines for priority vaccination, which were expected to recommend that health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities be among the first given access to a vaccine.

States do not have to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control panel, but many are expected to adhere to the general framework. Baker submitted a draft plan to the CDC in October based on the assumption that the state would receive between 20,000 and 60,000 initial doses.

That plan, which is being updated for final submission by Friday, prioritized health care personnel, adults over 65 and those with underlying health conditions and other essential workers.

Another challenge for states like Massachusetts once one or more vaccines are approved will be to convince the public to take the shots.

A new Western New England University poll released Tuesday found that more than a third of Massachusetts adults were either very or somewhat unlikely to get a vaccine. The most common reasons given for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 were distrust in the approval process and concerns about potential side effect.

“Despite the suffering and deprivation that people may have encountered either firsthand or through the experiences of others during the pandemic, a sizable percentage of the public right now is not convinced about the value of getting a vaccine,” said institute director Tim Vercellotti. “Of course, these numbers may fluctuate as the public receives more information and as distribution of vaccines gets underway.”

Hahn, the FDA commissioner, released a statement Tuesday morning before his meeting at the White House, according to Axios, making clear that scientists at the FDA were driving the approval process in an apparent attempt to blunt the appearance of politics interfering with the process.

“Let me be clear — our career scientists have to make the decision and they will take the time that’s needed to make the right call on this important decision,” Hahn said. “We want to move quickly because this is a national emergency, but we will make sure that our scientists take the time they need to make an appropriate decision. It is our job to get this right and make the correct decision regarding vaccine safety and efficacy.”

Hahn was among the officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who briefed governors on Monday about vaccine and therapeutic developments, including the “rigorous standards of the approval process,” according to the White House.

General Gustave Perna, who is coordinating vaccine distribution as part of Operation Warp Speed, also called on governors to make sure health care providers are included in state distribution plans to increase states’ “operational effectiveness.”

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