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Pennsylvania state health officials outline their COVID-19 vaccine plan

As pharmaceutical companies race to create, test and stockpile doses of vaccines to protect against the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania is contemplating a similarly daunting challenge: distributing those doses as quickly and effectively as possible.

Every indication so far is that a COVID-19 vaccine won’t be ready until sometime next year. But those in charge at the Pennsylvania Department of Health say they have a plan and are preparing now for the arrival.

The spread of COVID-19 continues in Pennsylvania. On Thursday, there were 2,900 additional positive cases, bringing the statewide total to 220,566. This is the highest daily increase of cases, according to the Department of Health.

“We do not have a definite date for when we will see a vaccine in Pennsylvania or in other states, but we’re actively preparing to be able to receive, store, distribute and administer that vaccine whenever it shows up,” Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said.

Officials at the state Department of Health on Thursday said they plan to distribute vaccines in several phases, outlining for the first time who will have first access to vaccines, how they will be administered and how the state plans to promote vaccines — once they are deemed safe and effective — to its population, including to some people who might be wary.

Who will get the COVID-19 vaccines first in Pennsylvania?

The state plans to distribute the vaccine in phases, relying on frameworks developed by the CDC.

In the first phase, when vaccine doses are likely to be limited, high-risk workers in health care settings, first responders, other essential workers, people with pre-existing health conditions and adults in long-term care are likely to be prioritized.

Levine said more work remains to further prioritize distribution within those groups.

How effective will the vaccines be in preventing the spread of COVID-19?

“It’s important to remember that when the vaccines are available,” Levine said, “they’re not going to be a magical cure for the coronavirus and will not immediately end the pandemic.”

Levine said she anticipate that the COVID-19 vaccine will be somewhat similar to the flu vaccine.

“Similar in that it will help prevent the virus — that many, maybe most people who get the vaccine, will not contract COVID-19,” she said. “But that some people will. And if someone does get it, hopefully the symptoms will not be as severe and won’t last as long.”

Experts expect vaccine supply to be limited. Federal officials have begun to stockpile doses of several vaccines, in hopes they prove to be safe and effective. Researchers expect it will take more than one to vaccinate the U.S. population.

Levine said 5 out of the 6 vaccines currently under development would require two doses.

Several potential vaccines are in phase 3 clinical trials and manufacturers could seek authorization for emergency use from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the next few months.

What about anti-vaxxers?

But after a vaccine is approved with demonstrated safety, one of the most significant challenges the state faces is convincing people it’s in their interest, and their community’s interest, to get vaccinated.

Levine said the health department is already planning its strategy to promote vaccination and messaging.

“We need to message the importance of getting this vaccine, or one of the vaccines when it becomes available,” Levine said. “We are going to need to work past that vaccine hesitancy, and that is our plan.”

Many questions — such as details on storage, transportation and logistics — will remain unanswered until a vaccine is authorized for emergency use.

Levine said the federal government has indicated the vaccine itself will be provided to every American at no cost, but health-care providers could charge insurers fees to administer the vaccine or for an office visit.

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