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Local ‘vaccine strike team’ preparing for Moderna distribution next week

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Many members of Calhoun County’s Unified Command System, which has managed the COVID-19 outbreak since earlier this year, have shifted focus to vaccinations. 

Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency officer Myles Chamblee is heading up the planning arm of the county’s vaccination strike team, which began meeting in late November to plan vaccine distribution locally.

Members of the strike team include Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center personnel, first responders, physicians, municipal personnel and Jacksonville State University representatives.

RMC has ordered an initial 5,000 units of the Moderna vaccine, Chamblee said Friday morning, though how many of those units will be approved is uncertain. 

Part of the strike team’s planning has been to coordinate with departments at RMC to prioritize who receives the vaccine. 

“We’re not only planning for the vaccine’s arrival, but coordinating distribution so the hospital doesn’t have to take on the full burden by itself,” Chamblee said. 


Taking on Phase 1 

The Alabama Department of Public Health has a four-phase plan for vaccine distribution, with the first phase focused on critical members of the health and emergency response workforce. That group is split into three risk levels: medium, high and very high. The very high risk group, to whom vaccines will go immediately, includes frontline health workers in hospitals and nursing homes, nursing home residents and those collecting or handling COVID-19 samples.

The other two risk groups comprise various health and safety workers, with first responders in the medium risk group.

A secondary group to be vaccinated in the first phase includes people older than 65 who live in overcrowded settings like jails, prisons or homeless shelters, or who have serious underlying conditions, such as cancer or heart disease. To qualify for the vaccine in this group, a person has to meet at least two of those conditions. 

It’s unlikely that the hospital will receive enough doses of vaccine to cover all health care workers in the county in the first delivery, Chamblee said, so much of the discussion has been about prioritization, meeting with liaisons from internal hospital departments, emergency medical service providers and outside clinics. 

Chamblee’s goal is to keep downtime to a minimum when the vaccine arrives, which may be as soon as next week. 

“We’re getting that information from all of these agencies … so we’re ready to pull that trigger and actually administer it and make it seamless,” Chamblee said.


Not enough to go around

According to a news release from ADPH released Friday, there have been 4,489 Pfizer vaccines administered in Alabama to date. A shipment of about 49,000 doses was expected to arrive next week, but the state’s allocation has since been dropped to about 29,000.

The Moderna vaccine was approved for emergency use Friday evening by the federal Food and Drug Administration. The ADPH release states that the department expects about 83,000 doses to arrive next week.

While RMC will manage vaccinations in-house for its employees, the operations arm of the strike team, headed up by EMA director Michael Barton, will manage delivery to outside organizations.

Barton said that process will be similar to the COVID testing sites that have popped up every other week or so since the pandemic began. 

“We’re still waiting on the date to know for sure when the vaccine is going to come in, to figure out how many doses we’re going to have and how it divides out to different groups,” Barton explained. 


Working toward general release

Phase two of the state’s distribution plan will include K-12 teachers and other school workers, public transit and food supply employees, and people of any age with underlying health conditions that may put them at higher risk. 

Phase three includes workers “important to the functioning of society,” including employees of colleges, banks, retail and grocery stores, among others. This phase may also include children and pregnant women, though an ADPH document outlining the phases of the vaccination plan notes that adequate testing has yet to occur in those groups. 

Phase four will include the general public — but that round of vaccinations will likely not come until spring or early summer of next year, according to Tiffany DeBoer, public information officer for the EMA.

For now, DeBoer is coordinating with doctors and other health care providers to create an information program about the vaccine. Beginning next week, she said, the EMA will post a series of videos to the internet with interviews from local doctors and nurses about the vaccine. 

“We’re getting doctors to make public service announcements and videos and explain what it is,” DeBoer said. “We’re taking the idea of the vaccine and breaking down what it really is and how it will help the community to get it.” 

DeBoer stressed that those with concerns about taking the vaccine should talk to their doctors for more information. 

“Your primary care physician knows your history, and if you have concerns they’ll be able to talk you through it,” DeBoer said, “and whether the vaccine is good for you or not good for you.”